When Dangerous Weather Approaches The Spanish Translation Problem Looms

As I look at the calendar, it tells me that we are in the midst of the active severe weather season in the United States, and the Atlantic hurricane season is around the corner. For many of us, it means consuming information about severe weather outlooks, watches, warnings and cones of uncertainty. Much of that weather risk information is communicated in English. Using Census Bureau data from 2018, the Center for Immigration Studies reports that millions of residents speak a language other than English in their homes. The largest increase in those not speaking English at home between 2010 and 2018 were Spanish-speaking residents. For this reason, new efforts to translate weather risk information into Spanish are potentially live-saving steps forward.

I have spoken to many colleagues over the years who have lamented that conveying warning and forecast information from English to Spanish is not trivial. In an episode of the Weather Geeks podcast, bilingual meteorologist Nelly Carreño discussed the challenges of bilingual weather communication. She noted that much of the English meteorological terminology and jargon does not have a clear translation into Spanish. She specifically mentioned the word “Bomb0genesis” as an example, but there are many others. Carreño also said that connotations of risk words and sense of urgency can vary as a function of the variation of Spanish (for example, Mexican versus Puerto Rican).

Joseph Trujillo-Falcón is a graduate research assistant at Cooperative Institute for Severe and High-Impact Weather Research and Operations (CIWRO) with NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) and NWS Storm Prediction Center. He has emerged as a pioneer in placing the Spanish language – translation barrier on the radar (pun intended). In a recent NSSL blog, Trujillo-Falcón said, “I realized there were some words that couldn’t be translated equally from English to Spanish….there is a big community need, but there’s not a big resource for proper translations and research.” Falcón, who is also a bilingual meteorologist at MyRadar, has thoroughly studied this problem. While he affirms the beauty and diversity of the Spanish language, he told Emily Jeffries in her blog, “….when it comes to the severe weather community, we want something all can understand….We’re advocating beyond unifying translations and proposing an infrastructure to ensure these efforts strive.”

In his 2021 study published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Trujillo-Falcón noted that Latino or Hispanic population is roughly 20% of the U.S. total and over 70% of them speak Spanish at home. Many of these people live in hurricane-prone regions or in active severe weather areas such as the Great Plains or South. During its Spring 2021 meetings, the National Academies Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate (BASC) heard from experts like Trujillo-Falcón on the need for incorporating equity, justice, and diversity within the nation’s weather, climate, and water enterprise.

Just this week, Trujillo-Falcón posted a Spanish-translated version of the NOAA Storm Prediction Center Outlook graphic (above) and said, “Language should never be a barrier to life-saving information.” I followed up with Trujillo-Falcón, who spoke to me by email as an individual rather than as a representative of any organization. He told me, “In 2015, the NWS SPC first introduced risk categories in Spanish. Our research found that bilingual practitioners were not agreeing on the initial translations due to regional varieties of the language, or Spanish dialects.” Such discrepancies led to more engagement with bilingual risk communication research by the National Weather Service, according to Trujillo-Falcón. He went on to say, “….we partnered with linguistic experts to find dialect-neutral messages.” This led to the aforementioned study and verification of their recommendations through a nationwide, representative sample of 1,050 Spanish speakers. Trujillo-Falcón confirmed that their survey found that the news translations communicated urgency in a much clearer manner.

Trujillo-Falcón closed his note to me with an important caveat, “Acknowledging that translation is only scratching the surface of what hinders Spanish-speaking communities from taking action during disasters, our next step is to explore other vulnerabilities in multicultural and multilingual communities.” As I have often noted, weather risk communication is quite challenging in English. People confuse the terms “watch” and “warning” or struggle with what “30% chance of rain actually means.” Heck, even the English version of the Spanish-translated graphic (below) may be unclear 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 statue in New York. It is encouraging that the weather community is meeting the needs of this melting pot rather than approaching things from a narrow or antiquated perspective. Such narrowness was on display on Twitter within the past year as Trujillo-Falcón shared his work. However, like a true leader, Trujillo-Falcón was not deterred by negativity. Clearly, there is more work to do across other language barriers, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.

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