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State's Translated Health Exchange Fact Sheets Get Poor Marks

Call it a case of “lost in translation.” Washington and Oregon’s new health insurance exchanges are getting poor marks for their efforts to communicate with foreign language audiences.

On the Washington Health Benefit Exchange website, you can find fact sheets in eight foreign languages, from Cambodian to Somali. These one- and two-page documents are supposed to help uninsured families navigate the new world of the Affordable Care Act.

But after the translations went live on the website, the feedback wasn't so good.

“We looked at those, and felt that they were somewhat concerning in their quality and effectiveness,” said Amy Alexander, a member of an advisory committee helping Washington’s Exchange reach out to low-income and immigrant communities.

Alexander says the committee had unofficial reviewers look at the translations. Imagine a teacher taking a red pen to a student’s paper. That’s what it looked like when the reviewers got done.

In the case of the Cambodian translation, the reviewer, who said it was written in street language, recommended a complete redo. The Chinese language reviewer said just the opposite: that the language was too formal and difficult to understand.

Alexander says it’s vital to get it right.

“It is often said that it’s better to have no translation than a poor translation,” she said.

At Washington’s Health Benefit Exchange, Michael Marchand says the fact sheets were translated by state-certified translators.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed,” he said.

Marchand says the fact sheets will be reworked. Noting the Exchange doesn’t take effect until Oct.1, Marchand said this is why they have community advisors.

“I think it’s great that we’re in a position where we’re catching it now,” he said.

In Oregon, the healthcare exchange uses Google Translate. Click on it, select your language and viola—the whole website is translated. But Angele Surault is not impressed. She directs Translations Services at CETRA Language Solutions near Philadelphia.

“My reaction is that it doesn’t look professional,” said Surault.

To demonstrate the problems, Surault converted questions on the Cover Oregon website into her native French.

“It reads, ‘How can to cover Oregon it help me?”’ she said.

A spokesperson for Cover Oregon says Google Translate is just a temporary solution. Coming soon is an informational website entirely in Spanish, and other Oregon materials in several languages.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.