Across the Language Barrier

How journalists reach readers in translation

A mural along the United States–Mexico border wall in Tijuana, Mexico, photographed in January 2017. Photo: Sandy Huffaker.

 When Ginger Thompson, an investigative reporter who covers immigration and the drug war in the United States and Mexico, began working at ProPublica, four years ago, she felt a need for a more direct engagement with her subjects. She began to think about publishing her reporting in Spanish. In June 2017, when Thompson’s story “How the US Triggered a Massacre in Mexico,” a partnership between ProPublica and National Geographic, about a cartel’s assault on Allende, a border town, was published online in both Spanish and English, it quickly became the site’s most read bilingual feature, a distinction it still holds today. Translation had been done before, in an ad hoc manner, but this piece was transformative. “We started somewhat organically, in 2012, with a story out of Guatemala, and have since translated projects that widely impacted the Spanish-speaking community,” Tracy Weber, her editor, says. “Thompson’s story caused us to be more intentional in ensuring our Spanish speaking audience had access.” In August of this year, ProPublica launched a Spanish version of its website, which gathers its translated articles on a single page.

Bilingual reporting and translation have become all the more important in the context of President Trump’s zero tolerance policy on border migration—especially because of the potential for stories to have a direct impact on lawmakers. On June 18, 2018, Thompson published Spanish-language audio from inside a US Customs and Border Protection facility where children separated from their parents were being held. The recording and its translation were picked up by Vox, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR, as well as foreign outlets. Robert Menendez, a Democratic senator from New Jersey, played it for his colleagues on the Senate floor. “They say a picture is worth a thousand words,” he said. “But the audio released yesterday by ProPublica is worth a million tears.” The next day, President Trump declared that there would be an end to family separations. There is evidence that the practice has continued, but still, Thompson says, “That audio changed the conversation about that policy.”

To get the language right in her pieces, Thompson goes back and forth with Carmen Méndez, her translator. “We want people to hear their voices reflected in the stories,” Thompson tells CJR. Méndez, who is from Spain, says that she aims to capture proper dialect. From the first story, she explains, “Ginger gave me the audio recordings of people to try to transmit their voice, not only what they said—that is very important in journalism, to be precise with what they say—but also how they say it.” 

I can relate. As I write this, I am reporting for Longreads from Reynosa, on the US- Mexico border, for a story about unaccompanied migrant minors, some as young as eight, who are requesting asylum. The young people I’ve met—many of them girls—share with me the kinds of experiences that are often only fully told when there is cultural fluency and trust. I am not a native speaker—I have a PhD in Latin American literature and have spent the past five years in Mexico and Spain. But I transcribe my interviews in Spanish, translate them into English, and, when I finish writing, send the original Spanish quotes to María Ítaka, my translator and collaborator, with whom I always discuss my work. For Ítaka, it is important for her translations “to be very poetic, to be fully human,” she says. “The idea is to have empathy for others and to do it in the most faithful way.” 

Translators often remain in the shadows—both because, when a translation is done well, nobody notices, and because plenty of outlets don’t give credit for translations. Yet Ítaka believes that “we must reclaim the place of the translator and know that it is very important in a global world where you want people to understand each other.”

Because language enables reporting—and comprehension of complex subjects in the news—it is essential for local and national media outlets to have bilingual journalists. In February 2016, the Times launched an online Spanish-language edition with a bureau in Mexico City. (The launch was timed to coincide with Pope Francis’s visit to Mexico, which the Times wanted to cover in Spanish.) Eliezer Budasoff, an Argentinian native and the editorial director, oversees a staff of around a dozen journalists who produce original reported stories and opinion pieces. The staff also discusses and selects which articles from the Times to translate from English to Spanish.

“We must reclaim the place of the translator and know that it is very important in a global world where you want people to understand each other.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The staff of the Times in Mexico City can be found on a quiet street in the Roma Norte neighborhood, working inside a light-filled colonial home. When I visit, Budasoff ushers me into a high-ceilinged living room, then leads me to a space in the back of the house that has been renovated as an office. Several staffers type away at their laptops. Paulina Villegas, a Mexican journalist who was hired by the Times to write in English, tells me that she thinks she would never have gotten an interview for the job had she not been bilingual. When the Times in Spanish was launched, Villegas began to write articles in her native language for the paper for the first time, with Budasoff as her editor. Villegas, who describes Spanish as “baroque,” revels in the opportunity. One story stands out: it was about the torture and rape of women in 2006 in Atenco, Mexico. Flower vendors were protesting being evicted from a public space, and Enrique Peña Nieto—now the president of Mexico, then a governor—sent 3,500 state officers to crack down on the protesters, many of whom were raped and tortured by police. “We did this Atenco story in English, and it was a pretty straightforward news story about this new human rights resolution,” Villegas recalls. “I had so much material, so I did a completely separate piece in Spanish.”

Boris Muñoz, who is Venezuelan, is the op-ed editor of the Times in Spanish. “We look for trends,” he says. “New aspects or little-known aspects of reality or issues that are very important for us—for example, the debate on abortion in Argentina.” These include pieces addressing women’s rights, and Budasoff tells CJR, “The fact that we not only represent diversity of origins in Latin America but also are gender-balanced has allowed us to find an opening in terms of issues that were not covered.”

Elías López, who helped spearhead global expansion at the Times and is now global opinions editor at The Washington Post, was part of the team that decided to translate Sarah Maslin Nir’s 2015 Times article “The Price of Nice Nails,” about working conditions in New York City nail salons, into Chinese, Korean, and Spanish. “We were just testing the impact of language as a lever to increase reader engagement,” he recalls. There wasn’t much foreign-language chatter on social media, López says, but it was a valuable learning experience.

Machine translation was initially considered but deemed too imperfect to be relied upon. “We found out that translation without a layer of editing wasn’t good enough,” López explains. Abigail See, a PhD student at Stanford University who is researching machine translation, says that, to produce a perfect translation, artificial intelligence must “be able to read a text and understand it at the deepest level, which involves understanding the context and, for example, the emotions behind it.” Google Translate and other applications can produce useful basic translations, she says, but they lack complex understanding of the meaning of language. As López sees it, “Any language expansion needs a rigorous editorial commitment to quality control and technical support.” Review would have to be part of the investment.

In his new role at the Post, López continues to push the importance of translation. He was part of a team that decided to publish the editorial board’s first-ever article in Arabic, on August 8, after Canada criticized the arrest of two female activists in Saudi Arabia, and Canada’s ambassador was expelled from the country. The piece was edited by Jamal Kashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist working for the Post.

Khashoggi, who also began to translate his own columns, believed that the lack of freedom enjoyed by the press in his part of the world made translating work into Arabic crucially important. “Jamal didn’t just want us to translate his columns,” López says, “but also the works of other columnists.” 

Bilingual reporting and translation have become all the more important in the context of President Trump’s zero tolerance policy on border immigration.

Kashoggi’s fate reveals the risks inherent to translation: on October 2, after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Khashoggi disappeared; officials believe that he was murdered. His editor, Karen Attiah, published a column in which she described the “unbearable” repression he suffered in Saudi Arabia and wrote that “the mystery surrounding Jamal’s whereabouts comes amid a wave of crackdowns on dissent and activism in Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.” Kashoggi’s determination to have his writing published for his own people to read, it is widely believed, made him a target of a violent regime. Attiah wrote that she views him as “an inspiration.” Her column was translated into Arabic.

Ben Taub, a staff writer at The New Yorker, made a case for Arabic translation in 2016 to Willing Davidson, his editor, while working on “The Assad Files,” about the Syrian regime’s involvement in mass torture and killings. “We could show Syrians what decisions within their own government had led to these atrocities,” Taub says of the investigation. “It mattered a great deal to me that that was something that would be accessible to them.” To date, “The Assad Files” is the first and only story that The New Yorker has translated into another language.

Taub worked with Nermin Nizar, based in Cairo. Nizar, who is 46, has worked as a literary and journalistic translator for the past 26 years, and recalls that the main challenge of working on Taub’s piece was psychological. “The details of what happened in the air force hospital where prisoners were kept were so ugly,” she says. 

Since Arabic reads from right to left, The New Yorker’s web development team had to build a new platform to host the article online. For Taub, the effect was profound. “This wasn’t a business decision about the readership,” Taub says. “It just was obviously the right thing to do to try and make it accessible to the people for whom it matters most.” Translation, in this and so many cases, has a moral purpose: recognizing that the stories journalists publish should be available to those who have put everything on the line to tell the truth.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Alice Driver is a bilingual journalist, translator, and video producer based in Mexico City. Her work focuses on migration, human rights, and gender equality.