Cautionary Tales

As a native Spanish speaker, I pay special attention to the multiple inaccurate English-to-Spanish translations that I see in my day-to-day life. Sometimes they feel lighthearted, so I brush them off and laugh. Most times, I cringe at what a closer examination of a ridiculous or insulting message might reveal: a disregard for the interlocutor (Spanish-speaking audiences) that is demonstrated through a lack of care for whether or how the message gets across.

Above and below are three examples that range from hilarious to thoughtless. (The graphics are based on photos to keep the producers anonymous.) I share them as cautionary tales and to remind us that when the goal is, like ours, to build a culture of preparedness, clarity and precision in language, and effectiveness in the communication of content, can be a matter of life and death.

In Figure 1, at the top of this post, “Caution! Hot!” becomes, “Careful The hot one!” which reads like a random warning of a seducer on the loose.

Below, in Figure 2, the straight-forward directive, “Exit Only” is rendered unrecognizable in Spanish, as it reads, “Success, right here!”

A sign reading "Exit only," and "Éxito Aqui"

Figure 2

And the last one, Figure 3, and most relevant to our topic, is neglectful, at best. The translation warns, “In the event of fire, avoid high elevations.”

A sign that reads "In the event of fire, do not use lifts," and "En el acontecimiento del fuego no utilice las elevaciones." Let's make higher caliber wildfire resources in Spanish

Figure 3

An accurate translation requires much more than a word-for-word conversion from one language to another. It requires thoughtful and respectful attention to the people you are trying to engage. Yet, current evidence strongly suggests that despite the swift demographic shifts in this country, our approach to emergency response and other social services is nevertheless informed by white, middle-class values, while equity and inclusion are not prioritized. Still, we know that disasters affect some groups disproportionately: the poor, the elderly, as well as racial and ethnic minorities many of whom are not yet proficient in English. Translation that is responsive to the cultural and linguistic needs of these groups becomes imperative to ensure that everyone is included and has relevant, timely information.

Must-Haves: Community Wildfire Resources in Spanish

In the spirit of inclusion and equity, I share an annotated list of Spanish wildfire adaptation resources that are clear and succinct and take audiences into consideration. The translations are, for the most part, done thoughtfully, and the resources are effective in conveying critical information across to readers and viewers.

1.  California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE)’s Wildfire Preparation Resources

CAL FIRE’s landing page for wildfire preparation resources in Spanish is uncluttered and concise. It has just enough information to introduce the topics, and hyperlinks for those who want to dig deeper. All hyperlinks point to useful, brief one-pagers that are generally well translated. The fourth hyperlink directs you to an online database of 17 short documents that are printer-ready and cover a wide range of subjects related to wildfire including evacuation guidelines, defensible space, fireworks and camping.

Notes: This resource database also offers tip sheets on issues related to structural fires, like Carbon Monoxide detectors and Halloween safety, if you or someone you work with also deals with structural fires. Overall, the resources are specific to California, though they can be easily adapted to a different geographic context.

2. Ready, Set Go! Materials for Preparedness

The En Sus Marcas Listos Fuera video opens with dramatic recollections from Latinx community members who have personally experienced wildfire. The testimonials include extremely emotional reactions, an effective way to get the viewer to pay attention to what follows: resources on preparedness, including defensible space, safety tips, and guidance for an orderly and timely evacuation.

Note: For those showing the video to a community group, it is important to give participants an opportunity to respond to the content, as the testimonials can induce anxiety and fear. An opening question could be, “What did the testimonials evoke for you?” Once people have had a chance to voice those emotional reactions, it will be easier to engage them in a conversation about preparedness. Additional discussion questions could be about what people can do now to support their families’ and their communities’ preparedness.

The corresponding action guide (PDF, 3.7 MB) complements the video by including tips about defensible space, a checklist for an emergency plan, and evacuation how-tos.

3. NFPA/Firewise’s Cómo Preparar Su Casa Contra Incendios Forestales

This trifold flyer is jam-packed with wildfire adaptation essentials: vegetation control, fire-smart construction and preparation tips. It is well translated and includes clear and helpful graphics. The flyer can be posted on the refrigerator for reference. It also directs the reader to websites where one can request more flyers and posters for distribution among neighbors and community members.

4. Corporación Nacional Forestal de Chile’s Manual de Prevención de Incendios Forestales (PDF, 16.0 MB)

This is a highly technical and thorough document (126 pages) about how communities can better prepare their residents to live with wildfire. It includes detailed and technical information, as well as printer-ready tools that can be used as handouts, flyers or posters. For example, there are checklists for residents regarding defensible space, emergency kit lists for homes and automobiles, guidelines on how to convene a community council, diagnostic tools to test community readiness, and even a timetable on how to prioritize community actions.

Note: This report was written by and for people living in Chile, but its overall framework is one worth replicating, and many of its tips aren’t geographically specific. 

5. Unpacking FAC in General

Looking for a resource that answers the question, “What is a fire adapted community?” Check out the Washington Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network’s five-minute animated video, Living with Wildfire, Everytown, USA. The Spanish version was recently released, and it is being referred to as an example of a culturally responsive way to engage and prepare Spanish-speaking communities.

Ensuring language access is not just a good practice. The law requires recipients of federal financial assistance to take reasonable steps to ensure that people not yet proficient in English have meaningful access to the same benefits, services and information (see Tips and Tools for Reaching Limited English Proficient Communities in Emergency Preparedness, Response and Recovery, published by the Federal Coordination and Compliance Section, Civil Rights Division of the U.S Department of Justice, PDF, 370 KB). Appropriate resources require nuanced approaches, based on the topic, the socioeconomic context, geography, etc. Let’s continue to work together to build a body of resources and knowledge by leaving your input in the comment section below.

Headshot of Maria

Credit: Charles Uibel

Maria Estrada came to the U.S. from Colombia in 1988. She graduated from Virginia Tech in 2001 and received her Ph.D. from the University of Utah in Education, Culture and Society. She is associate director of the Global Diversity Equity and Inclusion team at The Nature Conservancy (TNC). In her role, she helps TNC build strong relationships of trust and mutuality, internally and externally, to reach the diversity of partners needed to assure that both nature and people thrive. This work involves building capacity to partner with communities and working on equity and inclusion aspects of conservation.

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