Why Are Government Websites So Bad At Spanish?




More than a month after the Spanish-language Affordable Care Act website went live, people are experiencing problems not just with access, but with translation issues. Among the problems found on, the Spanish version of the health care website, was that Spanish-language instructions linked to an English-language form and that the details of the plans were so poorly translated using a software transcription service, that one health care navigator called it “Spanglish,” according to the Associated Press.

The translation flaws in the health care website has been cited as a reason for extraordinarily low signups among Latinos. Nearly one-third of all uninsured Americans are Latino immigrants. And despite the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency sending out a memo stating that it would not use health care information to track down undocumented immigrants, uninsured legal immigrants are still hesitant to apply for health care for fear of exposing undocumented family members to potential deportation.

Still, poor translation of government forms are all too common. For instance, poor translation or missing information on official government forms posed problems in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and in an Arizona county election.

In 2013, a New Jersey state website, which provided grants to rebuild homes damaged in Hurricane Sandy, provided inaccurate deadlines and hours of operations for Spanish-speaking applicants. That move prompted a lawsuit by the Latino Action Network, which found that unlike the English website, the Spanish website lacked an appeals process for hurricane victims who were denied funding; that an office location change was not updated in Spanish; and that an important application deadline “was provided in English, but not in Spanish.”

In 2012, a Spanish version of voter registration cards in Arizona’s Maricopa County — home to anti-immigration Sheriff Joe Arpaio — listed the election date as November 8, rather than November 6. At the time, elected officials blamed the wrong date on a clerical mistake, saying that only 50 people were affected. But even after the acknowledgement, paper bookmarks at three separate election counters still gave November 8th as the election day.

Some politicians also use misleadling translations as an opportunity to change their message. At least three Republicans, Sens. Dean Heller (R-NV), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM) either deemphasized border security or softened their tone on immigration on their Spanish-language websites.