Designing Multilingual Experiences in Technical Communication

Room 42 is where practitioners and academics meet to share knowledge about breaking research. In this episode, Laura Gonzales explains how technical communicators can collaborate with translators, interpreters, and multilingual community members to conduct research that is both ethical and justice-driven.

Airdate: March 2, 2022

Season 2 Episode 19 | 42 min

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Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:12.230] – Liz Fraley

Greetings, and welcome to Room 42. I'm Liz Fraley, your moderator. This is Janice Summers from TC Camp, she's our interviewer. And welcome to Dr. Laura Gonzales, today's guest in Room 42. Laura is an assistant professor of Digital Writing and Cultural Rhetorics in the Department of English at the University of Florida.

[00:00:28.330] – Liz Fraley

She earned her PhD in Writing and Rhetoric with the concentration in Digital Rhetoric and Professional Writing from Michigan State University in 2016. She's the author of more than 30 peer-reviewed articles, books, and edited collections focused on issues of language diversity, community engagement, and technical communication.

[00:00:48.450] – Liz Fraley

She is the current chair of the Diversity Committee for the Council of Programs in Scientific and Technical Communication, and she co-chaired the 2021 Association for Teachers of Technical Writing conference. She also collaborates with multiple community groups and organization on the design of technical information related to COVID treatment and prevention in indigenous languages.

[00:01:11.250] – Liz Fraley

And today she's here to help us start answering the question, “How do we design multilingual experiences in technical communication that are both ethical and justice driven?” Welcome.

[00:01:22.230] – Laura Gonzales

Thank you so much.

[00:01:24.570] – Janice Summers

We are so excited to have you here. And I'm thrilled to be talking about your soon to be released book.

[00:01:32.550] – Laura Gonzales

Yes. Soon to be.

[00:01:34.590] – Janice Summers

Soon to be released, right? This year?

[00:01:37.470] – Laura Gonzales

Yes. That is my hope.

[00:01:40.050] – Janice Summers

Yes. Well, we'll hold on to that and say yes, this year. Now, it's really interesting because one of the things that struck me first was the title of your book. Words are important, words have meaning, and I like to savor every word. And I think one thing I get from you is you're very careful about the words that you select.

[00:02:02.070] – Janice Summers

And you select them with great intent, which I love. So can you walk us through the title of the book? Because there's a reason why you chose this, and it caught me when I was reading it. So the title is Designing Multilingual Experiences in Technical Communication.

[00:02:25.530] – Laura Gonzales

Yeah, definitely. All of those words were selected very intentionally. I'll start with the multilingual experience. So in this book, I trace different collaborations with multilingual communities in transnational contexts, and I write about the process of engaging in research and community-engaged research across multiple countries, across multiple languages.

[00:02:49.450] – Laura Gonzales

And so I could have called it something like ‘Designing Multilingual Research Projects' or Multilingual… I don't know, something related to multilingual research or multilingual research methods because I do focus a lot on methods. But I decided on multilingual experiences for a lot of reasons. One of them is that language and the process of moving across languages is an experience.

[00:03:13.660] – Laura Gonzales

It's not this automatic process of you have a set word in one language and a set word in another language and you can easily transfer across the two, but converting information across languages requires a lot of experiential knowledge, of understanding about how language works in context. It requires the experience of sometimes having to do a translation in a very high stakes context.

[00:03:37.980] – Laura Gonzales

So I've done a lot of work with interpreters and translators in healthcare, for example, and they're doing this interpretation while somebody's having a very traumatic medical procedure. Like I observed one where someone was giving birth and they were using interpretation. That's such a high stakes context. So I chose the words “multilingual experience” to signal the fact that it's not just a research project, it's not just an activity, it's not just a participatory design activity, but it's a whole experience.

[00:04:07.420] – Laura Gonzales

And one of the points that I try to make in the book is that the multilingual experience doesn't start with the research project, it starts with the relationships that you build with the people that you're doing the work with. So that's that. And then the designing part is because we really were, in these research contexts, designing different things together.

[00:04:28.950] – Laura Gonzales

And I use that word also to signal that the multilingual participants are designers themselves. They might not be professionally trained designers, but they do design those experiences, and they're critical to the design of those experiences and technical communication, because that's my field, and that's what I wanted to speak to for this book.

[00:04:47.730] – Janice Summers

Well, I mean, and it's interesting because in technical communication, we're all about informing and instructing. We really take it down to the brass tax about technical communication, informing and instructing, and being believable, so it's well received and well understood, right? That's in a lot of things. So I really loved the fact that you said experiences, because words are experiences, right?

[00:05:14.190] – Laura Gonzales


[00:05:15.330] – Janice Summers

And that's where we get caught up, is that when you don't think about words as being an experience, because they're experienced by whoever is on the receiving side. And we run into that all the time in technical communication.

[00:05:33.190] – Laura Gonzales

Yes we do.

[00:05:33.190] – Janice Summers

We always talk about, what's that thing? User experience.

[00:05:37.120] – Laura Gonzales

Right. We always talk about user experience, and we try to design different experiences for different users. So yeah, I was trying to also signal those conversations that are more and more intertwined with tech comm, as most of us know. And so I'm trying to say, putting the multilingual in front of it is like an attunement to the language work that these particular communities that I was working with are doing.

[00:06:04.990] – Janice Summers

Right. By engaging in these different communities and having them as co-collaborators, is that the method that you're talking about? What are some of the methods that you were going through in the book without giving everything away?

[00:06:24.770] – Laura Gonzales

Sure. Yeah. It's interesting because I have three different research projects that I talk about in the book, and then I have a table in the book that says, “For each research site, here are some of the methods.” I think a through line would be participatory design and trying to really get at the question of who actually participates? And when you do participatory design activities with multilingual participants and you're doing them in English, but English might be their second, third, or fourth language, how does that shift participation?

[00:07:01.720] – Laura Gonzales

That's one of the methods that I talk about in the book is, how do we engage in participatory design that decentralizes or at least tries to decentralize standardized Englishes in those conversations? So some of the ways that I do that is by doing translation activities. Another method would be like translation practices and activities with the participants. Let's say you give somebody a scenario you're doing a usability study of something, and you say, go on this website and do these tasks, and think out loud while you do them.

[00:07:37.840] – Laura Gonzales

Pretty typical. Before asking the participants to do that, I would say, “Let's look at this scenario written in English. What does it say, and how would you translate this into different languages? Let's translate it into another language and then put that as a task. How does that change what you're actually going to do?” And certain words have very different meanings across different languages. And so engaging in that conversation about “how do we translate this task” is better than, in my opinion, asking, do you understand what this task is asking you to do?

[00:08:12.220] – Janice Summers

That's one of the key things rather than saying, “Do you understand?” But understanding how they interpret the word that you're trying to use. Don't put the ownership on the user, the ownership is on you. Does that make sense? Am I catching this correctly?

[00:08:31.510] – Laura Gonzales

Yeah, perfectly. And sometimes one of the things I did was, for example, take the scenario that I wrote in English and use Google Translate or something else to translate it, and then put that up. And then people would laugh at me. That was good, that's what I wanted. Because it shows the inaccuracy of Google Translate, but it also tries to decentralize me as the expert. Because then I have to ask questions like, “What is wrong with this translation? What happened?”

[00:08:57.000] – Laura Gonzales

It takes a little bit more time, but that's I think what fosters that space for participation is to have activities that value and incorporate participants' languages other than English as important to the research project, and say, I recognize that you're navigating these translation moments, translation experiences while we're doing these tasks.

[00:09:19.190] – Laura Gonzales

So let's talk about them instead of ignoring them and saying, “Well, that's not the point of this activity.” So yeah, we did participatory design, did several usability tests and activities with participants, several brainstorming activities. And then in terms of… Something I did want to share was the methodology, the approach to this. I propose an intersectional interdependent methodology, which sounds very complex, and it is.

[00:09:50.530] – Laura Gonzales

But I think when we're doing work that's attuned to language, you have to be attuned to race, class, gender, and disability. And so these frameworks for me—and they're drawing a lot on black feminists and disability studies activists—these frameworks help me develop methods that told me to pause and told me to take time with the scenarios, translating them, and consider how different people are orienting to these scenarios, rather than just saying, okay, you have 10 minutes to do this usability test. Let's report back. Yeah, those are basically the methods.

[00:10:29.430] – Janice Summers

Isn't that like design thinking, you bring in a lot of different people because it gives you a richness of understanding things that you would overlook. Because we all have biases, and we don't know what we don't know.

[00:10:47.330] – Laura Gonzales


[00:10:48.240] – Janice Summers

So if we engage a lot of other disciplines, a lot of other people in the design process, now, did you find that also that co-collaboration, does that help with the ownership of it, that people feel more engaged? Like when you're reaching into different communities?

[00:11:08.820] – Laura Gonzales

I say yes. I do feel that collaboration is critical, I wouldn't have it any other way. I think it's really important. It also was not perfect. There were flaws, there were miscommunications. There were a lot of different challenges that came up, and I messed up. I messed up as a researcher a lot. And instead of hiding that from the book, I actually incorporate that into the narratives of the book as part of the method and as part of that multilingual experience.

[00:11:37.450] – Laura Gonzales

So part of the designing multilingual experiences is when you mess up and when you say something incorrectly, or something insensitive, or when you do something that is offensive to people, what do we do? A lot of times we don't talk about that. And for me, it was important to talk about it.

[00:11:56.870] – Janice Summers

One of the really key things is you're not going to be perfect all the time. And I love the fact that you're exposing, hey, I wasn't perfect. This is not perfect, but this is what you do when you're not perfect. And this is how you handle it gracefully, because it's okay. And this is how you get better and do better.

[00:12:18.690] – Laura Gonzales


[00:12:19.890] – Janice Summers

I think that's important because when you're doing this type of work and you're reaching into different cultures and communities, it's not going to be perfect.

[00:12:31.110] – Laura Gonzales


[00:12:32.940] – Janice Summers

And if you think about, from a practitioner's point of view not just a researcher, because I think all of this applies to practitioners too. Not just designing research methods, but there's a lot of life lessons in here for practitioners. So you're not going to be perfect, but trying to implement these practices will help your communications into different communities, right?

[00:12:57.300] – Laura Gonzales

Absolutely. Yeah. Trying and understanding you're not going to be perfect but continuing to try anyway, and trying at the beginning and after you've messed up, that's something that I learned too. It's like, try at the beginning to be as inclusive as possible, to be as collaborative as possible, have the research questions stem from the community, not from you. Build those relationships before you do any of the research tasks, and go into communities without a necessary agenda, but really open to what it is that the community wants.

[00:13:30.840] – Laura Gonzales

And also knowing that the community might not actually want you. And if they do want you, why is that? And that's another thing that I talk about in the book that I was able to go into these contexts for many different reasons. One, I'm affiliated with a research institution, so that's a privilege there. I do have expertise in language and translation, that could be a contribution. At the same time, I benefit from white privilege no matter where I go. And so those histories within the different contexts are always at play in the interaction. So I can't just say, well, I was welcoming and everyone just liked me.

[00:14:05.510] – Laura Gonzales

No, it's because of all these different identities that I hold that has positioned me historically and contemporarily to be accepted in ways that others couldn't be. I think those are the types of conversations that I wanted to have in the book with the goal of opening up more dialogue across those issues.

[00:14:22.730] – Janice Summers

Let's never underestimate being friendly and likable. So people might not have the same privilege of the relationships that you have, but people could build relationships with people who have those relationships.

[00:14:39.100] – Laura Gonzales


[00:14:40.640] – Janice Summers

Leverage as a community. I think that's one of the really nice things I think about the professional technical communication community, is it is very open to engaging with others and building relationships. So I think that's something that people should definitely know. That's why everyone includes their contact information when they come into Room 42. Yeah. It's like, “Yeah, please reach out to me if you have questions.” It's that type of thing. So even if they don't have those same relationships, but they know where to find Laura, ask Laura for help.

[00:15:21.870] – Laura Gonzales

Yes, of course.

[00:15:23.430] – Janice Summers

Yeah, because the better we are at communicating, the better it is for everybody.

[00:15:33.490] – Laura Gonzales

Yeah, I agree.

[00:15:38.590] – Janice Summers

What were some of the key partnerships that you needed to establish for these three different storylines?

[00:15:49.680] – Laura Gonzales

So three different research sites that all took place at different parts of my life and that are still being sustained currently. So one is with the Centro Profesional Indígena de Asesoría, Defensa y Traducción. It's indigenous-led and run language activism, translation and interpretation organization in Oaxaca, Mexico.

[00:16:16.270] – Laura Gonzales

And I got connected with them through Nora Rivera, who is an assistant professor at Chapman University, because they were trying to put together a symposium for professional development for indigenous language translators and interpreters. So we began our conversations based on planning the symposium, and then the symposium expanded into an unconference.

[00:16:39.560] – Laura Gonzales

So we drew a lot from tech comm scholarship and participatory design. And so I traced that process of how to develop a participatory design project alongside indigenous language interpreters and translators that then had to have language accessibility for people who spoke over 300 different language and language variants. So the question was, how did we manage to come together and make this happen across all of that difference?

[00:17:07.490] – Laura Gonzales

Yes, we were communicating through a colonial language. We were communicating through Spanish. And so that shaped the interactions that we had and the interactions that we couldn't have. It shaped what I could understand and what I couldn't understand, the knowledge that was accessible to me, and the knowledge that was purposely not accessible to me. And that's fine because that's what the community wanted. So those are the conversations that I trace in that chapter.

[00:17:34.910] – Laura Gonzales

Another chapter was a collaboration I did in Nepal, in Kathmandu, as a Fulbright Specialist. In that organization called SAFAR [South Asian Foundation for Academic Research], under the leadership of Dr. Arun Gupto, we worked to do a digital humanities and participatory design project over the course of four weeks, and I traced how we came together to understand concepts like participatory design, like critical digital humanities with students who had lots of training in English but whose original languages were Nepali or several other indigenous languages from Nepal.

[00:18:17.890] – Laura Gonzales

And so I trace the history of English in Nepal and how that impacts the power dynamics of participatory spaces. And then the third case study is I worked on the US-Mexico border at the University of Texas at El Paso for three years, and I did a lot of engagement work with the youth and their families on the border. What's really interesting about this context is when we think about translation, we think about this is in one language and then in another language, and we think about English and Spanish.

[00:18:48.250] – Laura Gonzales

But in that context, it's English and Spanish together all the time, separated by a fictitious border that shouldn't even exist, and so I was wondering how that fluidity across Spanish—and Spanish has different versions of Spanish, and English has different versions of English—are always in communication and how that impacts participation in community projects in that context. So three very different sites.

[00:19:19.130] – Janice Summers

Border language is very different, isn't it?

[00:19:22.680] – Laura Gonzales


[00:19:23.560] – Janice Summers

Its own language. I wonder, does this happen in other countries where there's language differences from one country to the next, but the border towns establish a different language?

[00:19:38.220] – Laura Gonzales

Absolutely. I would say it happens in most countries. I think the US is the one that doesn't acknowledge it as much. But I would say it happens in most countries because most countries have long been attuned to the multilingual realities of their context, more so than the US. So I would say in most countries there is this fluidity, because that's how language works.

[00:19:58.940] – Laura Gonzales

Language doesn't stay in static containers, and your brain doesn't have a switch like Spanish, English. Your brain is always negotiating meaning across all the languages that you know, all the words that you know. We'll use whatever we need to get heard and understood as human beings. So I think that fluidity happens everywhere.

[00:20:16.550] – Janice Summers

Yeah. Language is organic and ever-changing. Interesting. Yeah. Sorry, I just lost my train of thought.

[00:20:34.560] – Laura Gonzales

That's fine.

[00:20:38.810] – Liz Fraley

I wonder if I'm understanding participatory spaces correctly or even thoroughly really? What do you mean by all of that and how far does that reach? I don't even know how to phrase the question, it's really weird.

[00:20:59.830] – Laura Gonzales

It's okay.

[00:20:59.830] – Liz Fraley

Because we spent the last two years thinking about it in a totally new way, but that's not really what you mean. It's deeper than that.

[00:21:09.850] – Laura Gonzales

So what I mean by participatory or—

[00:21:12.800] – Janice Summers

Participatory spaces. Because I think like when you're talking about the conference, right Liz?

[00:21:19.510] – Liz Fraley

A little bit. Even this. I think a lot of us are figuring out there's a lot more to that. And there's a lot more to consider and think about. It's hard to phrase the questions because I've been wrapped up and listening to you this whole time. But can you give us a little bit more on the dimensionality you mean by all of that?

[00:21:48.650] – Laura Gonzales

Yeah. I think what I mean is how do we foster a space where people feel they're actually going to be taken seriously, their perspectives are actually going to be taken seriously. And I draw a lot of this from participatory design and how it's applied in technical communication, ties to human centered design and the emphasis on that move from a system-centered approach to a user-centered approach that we've experienced in technical communication that continues to grow. So that's on one hand.

[00:22:23.720] – Laura Gonzales

On the other hand, I draw from conversations about language access and accessibility, and there's been a different shift. And I always go back to this. So language access is mandated by law. So by law, and not just in the US and Mexico too, organizations that receive federal funding have to provide access to information for people who speak languages other than English, period. How that's practiced is very different. So some people will just provide a translation on a flyer but never actually invite—

[00:22:55.120] – Janice Summers

A direct organization.

[00:22:56.790] – Liz Fraley


[00:22:58.160] – Janice Summers

Not a cultural translation, but a direct translation. In the old way of thinking of translation.

[00:23:04.350] – Laura Gonzales

Exactly. And now people are moving toward what they call language justice, which is not just is the information available in the other language, but are those people who don't speak English or who don't feel comfortable, who don't want to speak English for whatever reason, are they actually included and are they included at the beginning of when something is getting planned or is something being retrofitted to include them much later?

[00:23:26.810] – Laura Gonzales

And that's what I mean by participation. How do we build spaces in our technical communication research, where we bring people to the table at the beginning to brainstorm ideas, to come up with solutions, to even decide what the problems are? Because a lot of times we tend to do that as the experts, we decide what the problems are. How do we bring people together and create that space for participation, and how do we interrogate it beyond our own lens?

[00:23:54.300] – Laura Gonzales

I'm a teacher, and a lot of times I think my class went great and everyone feels welcome to participate. But that's not the case, especially for students of color, especially for multilingual students. So I was saying, for a research project, the premise I guess is, if in tech comm we're saying participation is important, we want everybody at the table.

[00:24:13.950] – Laura Gonzales

We recognize that we need people at the table at the start of a project, not in the middle, not just at the end. How do we really know if that space is accessible to everybody, and who is it inaccessible to, and why? And who gets to create those spaces? So that's what I mean by a participatory space. It's designing those areas of dialogue and conversation and innovation really, alongside people from many different linguistic backgrounds.

[00:24:43.970] – Janice Summers

You said something interesting earlier and I just wanted to get back to that and touch on that, because we have both practitioners and academia that come to Room 42. But one of the things that was interesting when you're talking about translation, and is translation word for word? The traditional way of looking at translation, because we're going to be in fifty countries.

[00:25:05.730] – Janice Summers

We've got X product and we're going to be in fifty countries, so we want to translate. We want to be friendly and translate so that people can read the support menu or access the help center. And it was interesting we were talking with another professor, and I'm terrible with remembering which one we were talking to, but we were talking about translation. It was so interesting because she was talking about the fact that it used to be just translating word for word. But now when you engage with translation companies, you engage cultural translators, not just word translators, but cultural translators.

[00:25:44.210] – Laura Gonzales


[00:25:47.130] – Liz Fraley

I think that was Rosário Durão.

[00:25:47.910] – Janice Summers

Yes, it was.

[00:25:49.120] – Liz Fraley

And a lot of things are coming together for me now. Part of what I enjoy about these conversations is that connections start forming between things. I had two that are interesting, and I want to make sure I'm connecting them correctly to what you're saying.

[00:26:04.660] – Laura Gonzales


[00:26:05.470] – Liz Fraley

One, we had somebody who's talking about low vision and creating equivalent experiences for people who have other linguistic challenges. The things we're not usually talking about, low vision or hearing issues, and things like that, and creating equivalent experience, not just the information, but the experience. And am I getting that right? You're saying something similar, or how do we bring that thinking into the fold for them into what you're saying?

[00:26:45.370] – Laura Gonzales

Yes, in that we all want to have enjoyable experiences with any kind of technology, and we all want to have the experience of something not just like the afterthought of something. And I think for a lot of marginalized communities, disabled communities, multilingual communities, racialized communities have been an afterthought in the experience.

[00:27:06.410] – Laura Gonzales

Where it's like you can come in but you have to do it through the back door, or you can come in but you're not going to be able to understand what's being said, or you're not going to be able to hear, or you're not going to be able to see what's being said, but you're welcome here. That's the narrative that we see.

[00:27:18.930] – Liz Fraley

Right. Because it's not really there.

[00:27:21.880] – Laura Gonzales

Yeah. And people are not oblivious to the fact that they're not actually welcome if a space is not accessible to them. So I think what I'm saying is how do we then incorporate those people, those communities, marginalized communities, at the start of designing something rather than as the afterthought?

[00:27:46.430] – Liz Fraley

And then the other one that came to mind was, it's funny you mentioned El Paso, because there's a lot of really interesting things happening there right now.

[00:27:53.480] – Janice Summers

Yeah, there are.

[00:27:58.190] – Liz Fraley

I think Sean Williams was telling us about the water department. Instead of sending out ambassadors who are hired to do that, they're using the people who live in the communities who work for the water department to be the ambassadors. So it's like a community engagement, the community member talking to their own community that they live in. And I was like, wow, what a cool and interesting way to do it. I don't know if they're having them be as participatory in the construction of the messaging or not, but it seems like a right first step.

[00:28:35.570] – Janice Summers

Yeah. I think that's what he was saying, getting people in that situation was to try and understand that the water was safe to drink, which is a big deal.

[00:28:47.440] – Liz Fraley

Something like that.

[00:28:48.720] – Janice Summers

Yeah, it's a big deal. I think that in that situation, they were actually having them do the communication from the community.

[00:28:59.900] – Liz Fraley

Well, there's making the communication and there's the constructing of it. And I don't know, but now I want to know. It's fascinating. And you're doing a thing with youth in El Paso, or you were working with them.

[00:29:20.110] – Laura Gonzales

Yes. And that project is under the leadership of Dr. Lucía Durá, who I think you've also met with, who's been doing amazing work on the Mexico-US border for a really long time.

[00:29:31.740] – Liz Fraley


[00:29:33.250] – Janice Summers

Yeah, she's incredible.

[00:29:33.250] – Laura Gonzales

We did some participatory design activities with youth around issues of health because communities on the border experience so many health disparities due to structural oppression. But also communities on the border have their own definitions and attunements to what being healthy is. So we built a program around that. What does health mean to you? What does it mean to be healthy and happy to you? And we did that work with youth and their families, and we documented that work through a website and an after school program where we were consistently working across languages. So we were working across variations of Spanish and English, and that's what I was attuned to in that project.

[00:30:15.600] – Laura Gonzales

I mean, I was part of the team building the curricula and going to the after school program, but also tracing that movement across languages. So how do people talk about health literacy on the border, youth and their mothers, mostly mothers and grandmothers. And how does the experience of language impact definitions of health and experiences of health? So yeah, that's some of the work we were doing in that context.

[00:30:44.990] – Janice Summers

Every time you say “experience language,” it boggles my mind at the complexity of communication. And then add the factor of technical communication where we have to inform and instruct, and oftentimes it's very critical information that we need to impart to these people, and just navigating that.

[00:31:10.780] – Laura Gonzales


[00:31:18.990] – Liz Fraley

Yeah. I can only feel my own inadequacies talking in this discussion. I try to be very careful, but I know that I'm not catching everything.

[00:31:34.650] – Janice Summers

We can say things like simplified English, but is that enough?

[00:31:38.970] – Liz Fraley


[00:31:38.970] – Janice Summers

No, I agree. I don't think so. Listening to Laura, I don't think that's enough.

[00:31:48.070] – Liz Fraley

When I remember hearing a presentation, I want to say it was like eight years ago, from a major manufacturing company whom I'll leave out. They used to translate to more languages than they do now. They started reducing the number of languages because there was a common language spoken across regions. Rather than covering more and engaging more communities, they decided to push it to that door. You got to go through this door if you want it.

[00:32:28.290] – Laura Gonzales

What door exactly?

[00:32:30.990] – Liz Fraley

This language door. You got to come through this language door if you want the information on our products.

[00:32:37.230] – Janice Summers

It's like that colonialism, right?

[00:32:39.990] – Liz Fraley

Yeah, it kind of is.

[00:32:41.740] – Janice Summers

Which it seems backwards.

[00:32:44.130] – Liz Fraley

And it was funny, because at the time the presentation was like, this is a win. We're like spending less on translation. It's automated in this way and blah, blah, blah. Those things that commercial industries and structured authoring and that kind of stuff does.

[00:32:59.450] – Laura Gonzales

Well, when that gets done, I've experienced some of that here in Gainesville where I'm doing some language activist work, especially in relation to COVID and the information that indigenous language speakers in Gainesville were or were not receiving related to COVID treatment and prevention. Given that a large number of migrant seasonal farm workers in Gainesville providing our food are indigenous language speakers, the government was not translating, not culturally localizing any information related to COVID prevention and treatment, with the exception of one organization that I started to collaborate with, the Rural Women's Health Project in Gainesville.

[00:33:41.590] – Laura Gonzales

And the justification was there's just not enough numbers because they were looking at full population. So if you look at full population of a city or full population of a country and you say, “What are our language needs?” The people whose needs are going to get met are the people in the majority. Which is always going to be the people who are already privileged because they've already been considered in the design of anything in their community.

[00:34:05.220] – Laura Gonzales

So that argument of “We only translate into these languages because we have the most number of people who speak this language,” that really fails and consistently fails already marginalized language speakers who, yes, they won't be the majority, but they're still human beings and they're consistently not having any information translated.

[00:34:28.930] – Liz Fraley


[00:34:29.820] – Laura Gonzales

To me that's a project management issue where you can think about how to provide different rounds of translation for different types of information at different stages in the process, how you can work with communities to share the information as needed. But I don't think people take it that far because it's very easy to say, “Well, there's just not enough of you for us to care about you.”

[00:34:50.200] – Laura Gonzales

And I think that is an issue that indigenous language activists consistently point us to: we are still here, we still exist, and we are not something in the past, and there are still needs in the community that have been consistently overlooked on purpose. On purpose because it's easier to say there's not enough people for that language. But we've seen the impact here of actually focusing on the people who don't have the most numbers, but who do have a vast impact on our community. And it's been great. It's been great to see that impact, although there's still a lot of work to do.

[00:35:30.030] – Liz Fraley

That's an interesting measuring stick instead. Rather than numbers, impact and influence. How many more people get that information if you focus on that one or two people, the smaller number than the bigger number? You hit a bigger community. Yeah. Interesting concepts. Another thing to think about.

[00:36:03.730] – Janice Summers

Well yeah. Even like, this imaginary XYZ company, maybe they couldn't do the transfer cost for whatever reason, but engage in a local community outreach group to help maybe come up with some translation, that would be acceptable for engaging them proactively instead of just shoving it over.

[00:36:28.030] – Laura Gonzales

Yeah. I think a lot of times the metrics we use to assess the need of certain things are totally based on white western ideas, and so we miss a lot of stuff. There's this assumption, for example in Gainesville, that Gainesville is this rural place where everybody speaks English. And a lot of agencies and organizations have that misconception, because why?

[00:36:51.380] – Laura Gonzales

Because they use the census to measure the population, and not everybody answers the census. Not everybody feels safe answering the census. The census isn't translated into all the languages that is needed. So of course, based on an assessment made through white supremacist lens, you're going to get white supremacist results that are going to favor the same group of people who've been favored the entire time.

[00:37:15.600] – Janice Summers

Well, in the end if they do translation, they're just going to do the direct translation. They're just going to do a language translation and they're going to think that's enough. And it clearly isn't, because languages are organic, they're lived, they're experienced. So by saying, okay, well, we have this, we're doing the best that we can with what we've got. How can we work together collaboratively to have this message improve?

[00:37:44.120] – Janice Summers

Especially when you're talking about medical stuff, it's really important that people understand it. So it sounds like that last step is to try and engage a local community group to help with that last step, that last leg, that's clearly not being met.

[00:38:02.020] – Laura Gonzales

Yeah. And I would say that should be one of the first steps too, because a lot of times a company will say, we don't have money to translate all these documents. They're too long. But if you engage with the community at the beginning, they'll tell you, “We don't actually need this long document, we need it condensed into these two pages, and then we need to change the messaging this way.”

[00:38:23.660] – Laura Gonzales

And so then the translation becomes a lot less labor-intensive and a lot less costly if at the beginning you talk with experts in the community and you say, this is the information we're sharing out what is going to be useful for you? That shifts. And again, it's an excuse that a lot of companies use to say, well, we can't afford to translate all this stuff.

[00:38:44.570] – Laura Gonzales

It's the argument for user experience research. If you do the user experience research at the beginning before you actually implement the product, you're going to save a lot of money. If you do the translation and language access work at the beginning, you're going to make the improvements you need to the information and you're going to save a lot of money.

[00:39:00.790] – Laura Gonzales

So paying community experts, working with community experts at the beginning to talk about translation before the document is even finalized or as you're going through the process, can help save a lot of additional work and resources. But you have to work with the community first. So I think that's a shift that we learned from you experts.

[00:39:21.810] – Liz Fraley

Yeah. I was just thinking that that's generally going to improve it overall anyway for everyone. Ask them what they need rather than just like, oh, here's every little user interface item. And I'll explain what “name” means, it means (name). Yeah. Okay, I get that part. But yeah, I get that what you're saying. That's cool. Wow, what a great session. We are right on time actually.

[00:39:55.530] – Laura Gonzales


[00:39:57.630] – Liz Fraley

I've got a million things to think about. It's hard to—

[00:40:01.090] – Janice Summers

And that's one of the things that we like, is there's a lot of inspiration that comes out of these. Many people stop and think about how they can do better and be better. And this is definitely one of those conversations that has been extremely informative. I'm excited about your book coming out.

[00:40:18.470] – Laura Gonzales

Thank you.

[00:40:18.470] – Janice Summers

And I know that as soon as it comes out, we'll put a link to the release on your page and definitely promote it. So you have to tell us as soon as it's released.

[00:40:28.010] – Laura Gonzales

I will. I definitely will, and I appreciate you all having me.

[00:40:31.190] – Janice Summers


[00:40:31.590] – Liz Fraley

I'm so glad you could.

[00:40:31.590] – Janice Summers

Yeah. Lively conversation.

[00:40:37.950] – Liz Fraley

Sometimes you can't stop talking, and sometimes you have to stop so that all the things can come together. I feel like it's the last one for me because I've got a lot of things to work through.

[00:40:50.040] – Janice Summers

Yeah. Absolutely.

[00:40:50.840] – Liz Fraley

Awesome. Thank you.

[00:40:52.130] – Janice Summers

Well, that's been wonderful. Thank you again for your time.

[00:40:55.530] – Laura Gonzales

Thank you very much. Thank you everybody for coming. I see [listing guests]. So good to see you all.

[00:41:05.310] – Liz Fraley

Awesome. Thanks everyone. And we'll see you next time.

[00:41:08.160] – Janice Summers


[00:41:09.360] – Laura Gonzales


In this episode

Dr. Laura Gonzales is an Assistant Professor of digital writing and cultural rhetorics in the Department of English at the University of Florida. She earned her PhD in Writing and Rhetoric with a concentration in digital rhetoric and professional writing from Michigan State University in 2016. Laura is the author of more than 30 peer-reviewed articles, books, and edited collections focused on issues of language diversity, community engagement, and technical communication. She is the current chair of the Diversity Committee for the Council of Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication and the co-chair of the 2021 Association of Teachers of Technical Writing Conference. Laura is also currently collaborating with multiple community groups and organizations on the design of technical information related to COVID treatment and prevention in Indigenous languages.

In this episode of Room 42, we’ll discuss Laura Gonzales’ forthcoming book, Designing Multilingual Experiences in Technical Communication. The book traces Laura’s research with multilingual communities across multiple countries. She’ll discuss how technical communicators can collaborate with translators, interpreters, and multilingual community members to conduct research that is both ethical and justice-driven. This discussion will help technical communicators answer questions such as: 1) How do we conduct research with communities who speak languages other than English?; 2) How do we encourage feedback and participation from communities who speak multiple languages?; 3) How can technical communicators contribute to the design of multilingual information?; 4) What does it mean to design a multilingual experience in a technical communication research context?; and 4) why does language matter in technical communication research?



Twitter: @gonzlaur

Recent publication in Technical Communication Quarterly, “(Re)Framing Multilingual Technical Communication with Indigenous Language Interpreters and Translators”:

Previous book (open access), Sites of Translation: What Multilinguals Can Teach Us About Digital Writing and Rhetoric:


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