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 information about severe weather outlooks, watches, warnings and warnings 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 their language. The largest increase in those who did not speak English at home between 2010 and 2018 were Spanish-speaking residents. For this reason, new efforts to translate weather risk into Spanish are potentially live-saving steps forward.

I have spoken to many colleagues over the years that is not trivial. In the 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 do 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 Spanish variation (for example, Mexican versus Puerto Rican).

Joseph Trujillo-Falcón is a graduate research assistant at the 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 the Spanish language (pun intended). In a recent NSSL blog, Trujillo-Falcón said, “I realized there were some words that could not be translated equally from English to Spanish …. research. ” Falcon, who is also a bilingual meteorologist at MyRadar, has thoroughly studied this problem. While he affirms the beauty and diversity of the Spanish language, Emily Jeffries told her blog, “… when we come to the severe weather community, we want something we 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 US total and over 70% of them speak Spanish at home. Many of these people live in hurricane-prone regions or in the extreme 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 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 as an individual rather than 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 did not agree on regional varieties of the language, or Spanish dialects. ” The National Weather Service, according to Trujillo-Falcón. He went on to say, “…. we are partnered with linguistic experts to find dialect-neutral messages.” A wide sample of 1,050 Spanish speakers. Trujillo-Falcón confirmed that the news translations communicated in a much clearer manner.

Trujillo-Falcón closed his note to me with an important caveat, “Acknowledging that only scratches 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 Spanish-translated graphic (below) depends on whether you think “moderate” is more (or less) threatening than “enhanced,” for example.

The diversity of our country is a beautiful thing and enshrined in the 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. 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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