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When Google Translate Gives You Arroz con Mango: Erroneous Español and the Need for #ownvoices

I recently had a Twitter conversation with three writer and librarian colleagues, two of whom are native Spanish speakers, about the use of Spanish in primarily English-language children’s books. The conversation started after one of us wrote about finding incorrect

Spanish in a book. Each of us chimed in, able to produce at least one example of a similar error we’d come across in recently published books. I’d just found two within a few pages of each other while reading a middle-grade novel to my son at bedtime. Imagine his annoyance when I kept interrupting our story to express my outrage at mistakes that should have been easy to catch and correct (the Spanish in these books is not complex). The books my colleagues discussed included picture books, graphic novels, and middle-grade and YA novels. We expressed disappointment, but not surprise. We poked fun at the mistakes. But in the end we were left with the question of what to do.

Mistakes happen. We see them in books all the time — something that wasn’t caught regardless of how many pairs of eyes looked over the manuscript. But the mistakes my colleagues and I were finding stand out because most of them involved the use of Spanish by non-Spanish-speaking authors. One would imagine that, this being the case, the many pairs of eyes looking over the manuscript would be especially attuned to the possibility of errors in usage. It seems that in order to address the underlying problems, we have to revisit the issues that have historically plagued the connected worlds of publishing and librarianship for children, namely the lack of representation of, in this case, Spanish speakers. The fact that these mistakes keep slipping through various cracks — from author, to editor, to copyeditor, to reviewer — speaks to the low number of Latinxs in writing, publishing, reviewing, and librarianship. And this lack of representation, combined with the push in recent years for more diverse children’s books, has, inadvertently, become an invitation for non-Spanish-speaking authors to fill this void, even when they know little to nothing about the culture or the language.

While there may be some finger-pointing when mistakes make it to the final printed copies of a book, the responsibility of creating and promoting books with accurate representations, whether culturally or linguistically, rests with everyone who is a part of that book’s journey, from the start of its creation to its final destination in readers’ hands. But how do you do this successfully when writing outside of your culture in an industry that lacks sufficient resources? Every recent collection of data — from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s annual report on books written by and about people of color to Lee & Low’s 2015 Diversity in Publishing report — has broken down what is already anecdotally known into numbers that paint a clear picture. We need more #ownvoices authors, but also more #ownvoices in all areas of publishing and librarianship.

It’s easy to say that, if you aren’t familiar with Spanish, and you don’t have someone fluent who can check your work, you shouldn’t write in that language. But that’s too simple a solution. It’s akin to saying that writers should only write about what they know. Instead, writers should ask themselves why they feel inspired to create a character whose language, and possibly culture, they are unfamiliar with. What purpose does it serve in their story? If they can’t think of a good reason for this character’s presence other than to fill the diversity role, it may be time to rethink the plan.

If it’s important to keep this element of the story, authors must be prepared to do the work. Approach writing Spanish in the same way you would any other unfamiliar topic you are interested in writing about. Research as thoroughly as possible. There are no shortcuts. In the case of writing in a language or about a culture with which you don’t have firsthand personal experience, this can mean having to pay for services. Google Translate is not going to cut it. As my son’s classroom parent, I once wrote and translated an email about the class Halloween party. I plugged the email into Google Translate to see if it had a better translation for the phrase treat bag, but what I found was some serious arroz con mango.

The individuals who read over an author’s work for accuracy should be able to speak and write the language, preferably as their first language. Keep in mind that the degree to which Latinxs can speak, read, and write in Spanish varies. Just because someone speaks Spanish doesn’t mean that person is the best resource for this type of work. In my own family, we have Latinxs who don’t speak Spanish at all, some who are fluent, and others who fall somewhere in between. While I grew up speaking Spanish, I have not studied written Spanish since elementary school, so those tricky diacritics still trip me up. In writing my first book, a middle-grade novel in which all but one character is Latinx, I knew I needed someone (or more than one person) familiar with written Spanish to look over words, names, and phrases in my manuscript.

Spanish also differs according to region. Some words commonly used in, say, Puerto Rico may not be used in Mexico. It’s important to check that sources are familiar with how the language is spoken in a specific location. An example of regional differences is how one says cake in Spanish. A friend from Argentina calls it torta, while a Puerto Rican friend says bizcocho. Growing up in Miami with a Cuban father and a Mexican mother, we always just said…cake. But with a Spanish accent! Even the phrase arroz con mango isn’t used across cultures.

Another thing to be mindful of is the flow of language when code switching. This is something a person may not be able to pick up on if that person is not a speaker of the second language being used, so it’s especially important to have someone familiar with both languages read the text. This is one reason (of many) why we need a children’s literature community that is inclusive and representative of many cultures, languages, and experiences. Writers need access to solid resources, including sensitivity readers and editors who can check work for accuracy.

Review publications need reviewers familiar with how Spanish can vary depending on nationality. Someone needs to be able to check that the use of language is accurate. The Lee & Low baseline survey found that only three percent of reviewers who participated identified as Hispanic/Latino/Mexican. If we consider the possibility that some of those reviewers may not be fluent in Spanish or are several generations removed from their cultural roots, it may decrease the number of reviewers who can attest to linguistic and cultural accuracy. So once again we’re left with the question of how to access these missing voices and experiences.

As a reader of Spanish, it’s hard to see errors in usage and not feel disappointment. The presence of these mistakes, in the context of the traditionally low numbers of diverse representation in children’s literature, gives the impression that Spanish is being used as a way to feed into a trend. It also leads one to wonder whom the authors are writing for. Are they even taking an audience of Spanish readers into consideration? For Spanish speakers, these errors inadvertently communicate that no one in the process of making the book did enough to get it right. For non-Spanish-speaking readers, it gives straight-up incorrect information.

You may be thinking, Wait, I thought we wanted more diversity! We do. But adding a character who speaks incorrect Spanish doesn’t help. What we really want and need are accurate representations in that diversity, not stereotypes and mistakes. At the end of the day, when we write characters who speak languages other than English, the hope is that we’re all writing for the same reason: because we truly care about those windows and mirrors we’re creating, about being part of developing an inclusive body of books for children. This takes hard work, and there are many challenges. Authors who choose to write outside of their culture or language must also be prepared for criticism and open to listening. The need to promote and support #ownvoices in all areas of publishing and in librarianship is an ongoing one. The people writing, editing, and reviewing books should reflect the diversity of our world, and have a voice in how diverse images are shaped.

From the March/April 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Celia C. Pérez About Celia C. Pérez

Celia C. Pérez is a reference and instruction librarian at Harold Washington College in Chicago, IL. She is a former co-chair of REFORMA's Children and Young Adult Services Committee and served on the 2014 Pura Belpré Award committee. Her middle-grade novel, The First Rule of Punk (Viking) was published in August 2017.

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Comments

  1. Yes, yes, yes! Thank you for stating it so clearly and for capturing multiple aspects of the problem. I, too, grew up in a bilingual home, but fall short of fluency because I didn’t formally study Spanish. My heritage may be South American, but my copyeditor needs a far better grasp of Spanish than I can offer.

  2. I couldn’t agree more! As a native Spanish speaker (born and raised in Peru), I cringe at the use of poor Spanish and stereotypes. The thing is, like you well said, that not everyone who ‘speaks’ Spanish is good in written Spanish or have a grasp of grammar. And the same happens in English. And, by the way, I do offer proofreading services. I’ve worked with Albert Whitman proofreading some of their books in Spanish. I’ve also done proofreading for smaller indie publishers. I write my own stories in English and Spanish (and I never edit myself, not even in Spanish!).

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