Between now and June, I’m responsible for “transcreating” significant portions of the website I edit, Bedsider.org, into Spanish. Translation is never trivial. As our readings make clear, language is a multi-layered system and we have many options for how we say things and how we interpret them.
Bedsider wasn’t developed by linguists, but it was developed by marketing and design professionals who carefully crafted its approach. We often talk internally about voice, tone, and style. If pressed to parse these descriptors, I would say “voice” refers to the core language we use as “Bedsider.” (For instance, we refer to Bedsider as “we” and address “you.”) Tone would be the overall feel of the language on the website – informal, friendly, approachable, authoritative. Style would be the linguistic and visual tools we use to create our brand.
A lot of research and thought went into developing the brand and as it’s grown, a lot has gone into extending it to produce new digital content that fits with the original vision. When I edit a new article, it’s a little like I’m trying to channel a spirit to figure out how “Bedsider” would say something. When I edit a contributor’s work (to appear with a byline), I have to negotiate a line between their writing voice and their contribution’s place within the environment of the site.
After several years of refining and extending the English brand, we’re now tasked with creating a Spanish-language version that we hope will resonate with the audience we want to reach just as well as the English version does with our current audience. (An evaluation has shown that Bedsider actually does what it was designed to do – decrease rates of unplanned pregnancy among young adults. In a controlled trial, people who were exposed to Bedsider were less likely to have an accidental pregnancy than the control group.)
The Bedsider brand was designed to address a problem – the problem that authoritative information about birth control tends to be delivered in jargon-ey, unrelatable language that may be boring or difficult to understand. This information tends to be delivered in a clinical setting where the last thing people are thinking about is sex. A primary insight in developing Bedsider was that people don’t care about birth control – but they do care about sex. So in addition to making information easy to understand, a key element of our approach is to connect birth control to sex. This needs to come through in the tone and the style, not just by throwing the word “sex” around. Could this mean that the Bedsider brand is in some sense its own little language? And if so, what could be lost in translation?
In a sense, we are generating a lexicon based on the pragmatics of our target audience. Ideally, I would like to bring as much nuance to the language we use in Spanish as we bring to English. Our first step is to build or identify the English lexicon of the brand. I’m not sure whether phrases can technically be included in a lexicon, but it will be crucial to go beyond individual words. For example, we often use the phrase “We’ve got you covered”, which refers both to our service of providing information about sexual health and to birth control covering individuals against pregnancy. Knowing the Spanish translation of the verb “cover,” for example, doesn’t take us very far in conveying the intended message.
We will need to think beyond individual words and even beyond phrases to translate the essence of the brand’s approach. Once we have some starting points for Spanish versions of the core messages and terms of the brand, we’ll look for feedback from members of our target audience of U.S.-based Spanish speakers to learn whether the language we’ve chosen resonates with and engages them. This is similar to the process we went through in English. The hope is that with the right language, the core approach of the program will translate.