Lost in Translation

Upon hearing of Gary Coleman’s death I made a confession to a friend: I heard the line “Whachu talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” for the first time when I was 17. My family and I had recently moved to Miami from Costa Rica, and a new friend was over at our house after school. My younger brother and sister tuned in to ‘Diff’rent Strokes,’ but I didn’t pay much attention until Arnold delivered that line. I nearly choked on my soda and sputtered with laughter…much to my new friend’s shock.

See, here’s the thing. I watched that show growing up in Latin America – in Spanish. But in the dubbed versions of that show, Arnold says:

¿De qué hablas, Willis?”

This is a bit of a disconnect. As translated, Arnold asks the question quite politely, so the expression on his face never ever made sense to me. The humor was lost in the translation.

Truth: there are many bits of American pop culture that don’t mean a thing to me – the Brady Bunch, the Partridge Family, Scott Baio…what?? But Los Chicos/Menudo, Topo Gigio and El Chapulín Colorado – I grew up around them, so they are meaningful to me.

My weak knowledge of 70s/80s pop culture often results in friendly fun-poking by my peers. It also makes me an interesting marketing challenge. Anybody who’s met me knows that I don’t appear to be Latina. I don’t speak English with an accent (though I speak Spanish fluently), I watch English-language television, mostly listen to English-language radio, and I strongly prefer college football over fútbol. Based on this information I’m a gringa and brands should market to me as such – right?


Marketers struggle with the how and where to reach Latinos every day. (By now, I hope the “why” has been answered.) The general market agencies are fighting it out with the Hispanic marketing agencies over the (limited) dollars being diverted to reach us. And, too often, the split is determined by language – the Hispanic agency is assigned to do Spanish language-only marketing, and the general market is assigned… the “general market,” which leaves the acculturated Latinos like me in limbo.

It gets really interesting when you look at social media. Florida State University Center for Hispanic Marketing Communication with the support of DMS Research surveyed nearly 2,500 people with approximately 500 cases in each of the following cultural groups: Hispanics who prefer English, Hispanics who prefer Spanish, Non-Hispanic Whites, African Americans, and Asians in the United States. They found that 36 percent of English-preferring Hispanics (acculturated) and 27 percent of Spanish-preferring Hispanics visit social networking sites at least 2 or 3 times a month – as opposed to only 18 percent of non-Hispanic whites. Latinos like their social media.

Now go to Twitter and search for #Latism. This hashtag was created by the organization Latinos in Social Media (Latism) to help bring together the ideas of Latinos all over the United States who are regularly using social media. These folks are mostly acculturated Latino leaders who are very actively discussing topics that are important to us – ranging from family and food to sports and music, to immigration and the Census. And they are doing it in English, Spanish and Spanglish.

As if that weren’t enough, I’m going to add another little wrinkle: country of origin. Yes, it’s true that there are certain things that unite most Latinos – family, culture, relationships and – yes, language. But at the same time there are some pretty significant differences – like history, culture, food, points of view on politics, and language – that are borne out of country of origin, even for acculturated Latinos. Anyone who tells you that “it’s OK to just use Mexican Spanish to reach all Latinos – they all get it,” is wrong. I learned the hard way that a word commonly used in El Salvador to describe a “bug” or “little kid” is a pretty bad “bathroom word” in Puerto Rico. The word used in most Hispanic countries for “take” can make a Mexican blush – or slap you in the face. Frankly a conversation about the many language discrepancies among the Hispanic countries is certain to be loud and pretty funny.

So, with all of this…how can a brand possibly reach the Latino community without getting lost in translation? I’ll tell any brand that cares to listen this: in order to be effective you must first put aside any stereotypes you might have about Latinos. You must also understand that we are a diverse group of individuals of all walks of life. Please don’t talk down to us. Be flexible – you may have to speak English, Spanish, Spanglish or all three – and that’s OK. Finally: while many of us consider ourselves just as much Americans as we do Latinos, it’s important that you understand and embrace our culture…and the things we hold dear. This is the point of entry.

For those brands that don’t choose to listen, I hear this blast from my past ringing in my ears:

“Peligro, Will Robinson! Peligro!