As Dangerous Times Approach, Spanish Translation Problem Looms

When I look at the calendar, it tells me that we are in the middle of active severe weather season in the United States and Atlantic hurricane season is fast approaching. For many of us, that means consuming information about severe weather forecasts, watches, warnings, and cones of uncertainty. Much of this weather hazard information is communicated in English. Using 2018 Census Bureau data, the Center for Immigration Studies Reports that millions of people speak a language other than English at home. The largest increase in the number of people who did not speak English at home between 2010 and 2018 was among Spanish-speaking residents. For this reason, further efforts to translate weather hazard information into Spanish are potentially vital steps forward.

I have spoken to many colleagues over the years who have complained that the transmission of warning and forecast information from English to Spanish is not trivial. In an episode of the The weather connoisseurs Podcast, bilingual meteorologist Nelly Carreño spoke about the challenges of bilingual weather communication. She noted that much of the English meteorological terminology and jargon does not have a clear Spanish translation. She specifically mentioned the word “Bomb0genesis” as an example, but there are many more. Carreño also stated that the connotations of risk words and the sense of urgency can vary depending on the variation of Spanish (e.g. Mexican versus Puerto Rican).

Joseph Trujillo-Falcon is a Graduate Research Assistant at the Cooperative Institute for Severe and High-Impact Weather Research and Operations (CIWRO) with NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) and the NWS Storm Prediction Center. He became a pioneer in putting the Spanish language – translation barrier on the radar (pun intended). In a recent NSSL Blog, Trujillo-Falcón said, “I realized there were words that couldn’t be translated the same way from English to Spanish…there is a great need from the community, but there is not a great resource for proper translations and research. Falcón, who is also a bilingual meteorologist at MyRadar, has studied this problem well. As he affirms the beauty and diversity of the Spanish language, he told Emily Jeffries in his blog, “….when it comes to the severe weather community, we want something that everyone world can understand… We advocate beyond unifying translations and provide an infrastructure to ensure the success of these efforts.

In his study 2021 published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Trujillo-Falcón noted that the Latino or Hispanic population makes up about 20% of the total in the United States, and more than 70% of them speak Spanish at home. Many of these people live in hurricane-prone regions or active areas of extreme weather such as the Great Plains or the South. During his Spring 2021 meetingsthe National Academies Council on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate (BASC) heard from experts like Trujillo-Falcón on the need to integrate equity, justice and diversity into the national endeavor on weather, climate and the water.

Just this week, Trujillo-Falcón released a Spanish translated version from the NOAA Storm Prediction Center’s Outlook chart (above) and said, “Language should never be a barrier to vital information.” I followed up with Trujillo-Falcón, who emailed me as an individual rather than a representative of an organization. He told me, “In 2015, the NWS SPC introduced risk categories in Spanish for the first time. Our research revealed that bilingual practitioners disagreed on initial translations due to regional varieties of Spanish language or dialects. According to Trujillo-Falcón, such discrepancies have led to increased engagement in bilingual risk communication research by the National Weather Service. He went on to say, “…we partnered with language experts to find dialect-neutral messages.” This led to the aforementioned study and verification of their recommendations through a nationally representative sample of 1,050 Spanish speakers. Trujillo-Falcón confirmed that their investigation found that the news translations communicated the urgency in a much clearer way.

Trujillo-Falcón closed his note with an important caveat: “Recognizing that the translation only scratches the surface of what prevents Spanish-speaking communities from responding to disasters, our next step is to explore other vulnerabilities in the multicultural and multilingual communities. As I have often noted, communicating weather hazards is quite difficult in English. People confuse the terms “watch” and “warning” or have a hard time understanding what “30% chance of rain” actually means. Heck, even the English version of the graph translated into Spanish (below) may not be clear to many people depending on whether you think “moderate” is more (or less) threatening than “enhanced”, for example.

The diversity of our country is a beautiful thing and is enshrined in an iconic New York statue. It is encouraging that the meteorological community is responding to the needs of this melting pot rather than approaching things from a narrow or antiquated perspective. Such closeness was on post on Twitter over the past year as Trujillo-Falcón shared his work. However, like a true leader, Trujillo-Falcón was not deterred by negativity. Obviously, there is still work to be done beyond the other language barriers, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.