Hit or Miss

Why a New York Times nail salon exposé is published in four languages

May 8, 2015

While doing dogged shoe leather reporting for her New York Times investigative series on the exploitation of workers in the nail salon industry, Unvarnished, journalist Sarah Maslin Nir had unusually well-groomed nails. Getting interviews with salon workers–who often don’t speak English, have little free time, and may be fearful of their employers–proved challenging, so Nir sat down for manicures and discreet conversations with salon workers several times a week.

Combining this approach with other reporting strategies, Nir eventually gathered over 125 interviews with salon workers, forming the foundation of the investigative series. Over the span of about one year, she and her team of translators pored over court cases and foreign-language newspaper clippings to uncover underpayment and abuse by nail salon owners. They roamed streets in Queens and New Jersey, where workers are picked up in the morning and driven to salons in the suburbs. The majority of those they approached wouldn’t talk, and even when someone gave out a phone number or address, there was no guarantee they would show up for the interview. Gaining trust was hard, and it took time.

But in the process, the team uncovered an industry that takes gross advantage of salon workers, mostly immigrants (some undocumented), who work day and night, sleep in small apartments shared by up to 12 people, and are paid as little as $1.50 an hour. Often, workers have to pay a training fee of $100 to even start at a salon, and will work unpaid for months until the owner decides they’re qualified enough to start receiving a salary.

While enduring the underpaid work is a better alternative to no work at all, many workers have miscarried, given birth to mentally disabled children, have been diagnosed with cancer, or suffer from general physical discomfort such as nosebleeds and sore throats, due to their daily contact with chemicals, Nir reports.

The series was released in two parts. The first, which focuses on worker conditions, went viral after its publication Thursday, and seems to already be making an impact. On Twitter and Facebook, readers are asking how they can find out if a nail salon is ethical, and Nir offers some guidelines in a separate post, although she admits the answer is “challenging.”

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The second and last part of the series, published Friday, takes a closer look at the health hazards of manicurists’ constant exposure to chemicals.

Nir says she first got the idea for the investigation about four years ago when treating herself to a pedicure at a 24-hour Manhattan spa on her birthday. When Nir asked the manicurist, working the day shift, who would be taking over for her at night, the manicurist replied that she worked there 24 hours, slept in barracks upstairs, and had one day off a week that she spent sleeping.

The investigation itself is noteworthy–for covering an issue that is so ubiquitous and yet so overlooked, as well as for the tenacity of Nir’s reporting. But there’s another remarkable element to this story, which is that six different translators contributed to the reporting, and the series is published not only in English, but in Korean, Chinese, and Spanish so those directly affected by the industry can read it.

This effort is part of a bigger New York Times initiative to translate more stories into languages of the cultures written about, Nir says, and it’s one that raises important questions. How should journalists report on groups that are part of national and local communities when they don’t speak the majority language? And when the reporting is over, how can newsrooms include those groups so that they, too, are part of the audience?

Reporting through translators is troublesome, expensive, and makes it harder to catch the nuances of a story. But Nir’s investigation shows that the effort to cover a community through its various subgroups is worth the investment. With the help of Spanish-, Chinese-, and Korean-speaking translators with journalism backgrounds, Nir built spreadsheets of all the salon workers they had spoken with, one sheet per language.

Out of the hundreds of cells emerged a truth about the salon industry that Nir has called the most surprising part of her investigation: racism. Nir uncovered a caste system in which workers are paid differently based on race. Korean workers, favored by the Korean salon owners who dominate the business in New York City, earn 15 to 25 percent more than their Chinese- and Spanish-speaking counterparts–the latter are particularly discriminated against in terms of pay and general treatment by owners. This is where the value of multiple translators across multiple languages becomes clear. Had Nir decided to focus solely on Korean-speaking workers, one of the most important parts of the story may not have emerged.

Discovering such truths through her own research, not interviews, is a symptom of how overworked the salon workers are, Nir says. “One of the things I noticed was that the women themselves don’t know their story. They don’t know about the racism,” Nir says. “The narrative isn’t there.”

Nir wanted the story published in all four languages to give individual workers an opportunity to place themselves within that bigger narrative. The Times has translated stories before, although not at this scale, and Nir says there’s an ongoing initiative to translate more Times stories. “We had one big meeting where we talked about it, and my editor Michael Luo said, ‘why don’t we use this piece as an experiment,’ ” Nir says. They embraced the experiment fully, and the Times has even been tweeting the story in different languages.

At the same time, the translated versions of the series may have given the Times an opportunity to expand its readership abroad. Nir says a story of hers about a group of elderly Koreans who clashed with a local McDonalds restaurant in Queens was translated by a South Korea-based paper and published as though it was its own. Such examples point to a potential: Audiences overseas are interested in stories about their kin in America. The nail salon exposé has already received media attention in South Korea, where Nir appeared in a TV interview on Thursday night.

If the experiment proves successful, we may be seeing more of this in the future:

Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS.