What Insurance Companies Can Do To Improve Spanish Translations

By Jaime R. Carlo-Casellas

The rapidly growing and evolving Hispanic population in the United States–with an annual spending power that currently exceeds $540 billion–represents one of the most alluring markets in the country.

Recognizing this, progressive insurance companies are focusing on developing the infrastructure necessary to capture this market.

The deployment of this infrastructure is a multifaceted, evolutionary process, which often begins with the dissemination of materials in Spanish.

Unfortunately, the development of effective Spanish-language materials is hampered by the fact that insurance companies are still struggling to improve contract comprehensibility in English.

Although some companies claim that the readability of insurance policies has reached an irreducible level, review authorities are convinced that much needs to and can be done to increase consumer understanding. Until then, the inability to decipher ambiguous contracts will continue to plague the consumer.

This is true not only for those Hispanic consumers with limited knowledge of English but also for consumers with sophisticated English language skills.

In their attempts to control readability, most states require insurance companies to issue readable and understandable policies. To comply with these requirements, companies aim to reach people with a 10th grade reading level or lower. However, despite state requirements, some companies continue to issue contracts with passages that are so ambiguous that their meaning baffles even highly educated English readers. To cite an example:

“Acceptance of this policy by me is acknowledgement and ratification of any corrections made in the application except, that no change in amount of insurance, age at issue, classification, kinds of insurance or benefits will be made unless agreed in writing by me.”

Another fact that insurance companies often fail to recognize is that it takes more words (approximately 20% more) to express a given concept in Spanish than it does in English. Consequently, essential but complex contractual information is translated into long, complex Spanish that the consumer often does not understand.

Acknowledging this, what can writers and translators do to enhance comprehensibility?

Although ethically, translators should not alter the tone and level of complexity of the copy they are asked to translate, those who feel an obligation to their audience apply acceptable tactics to enhance comprehensibility.

These include splitting long sentences into several short ones, avoiding the passive voice and using simple verb tenses–tactics that perhaps the authors of the original form should apply to improve decipherability of the English form.

Others suggest that the insurance company provide the policyholder with booklets or brochures that explain the provisions of the policy in Spanish, English-Spanish glossaries of key terms and instructions on how to contact a Spanish-speaking company representative for service.

The fact remains that the translation of complex English into comprehensible Spanish should not be the responsibility of the translator. Translators abilities to generate concise and accurate translations ultimately depend on their understanding of underwriting principles and practices, as well as their skills in avoiding literal translations (where the words are correct but the meaning is ambiguous or even incorrect) and purging translations of regional vernacular.

Because of the inherent liability associated with undecipherable, ambiguous translations, as well as their negative effect on corporate image, it is important to recruit translators who possess the aforementioned expertise. To ignore this further increases the possibility of generating undecipherable Spanish.

Jaime Carlo-Casellas, Ph.D., is president and CEO of CC Scientific Ltd., a Palm Desert, Calif., firm that provides translation and Hispanic market consultation services to the insurance industry. His e-mail is casellas@ccscientific.com.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, June 9, 2003. Copyright 2003 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved. Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.