Translation or Transcreation? Tactics to Better Serve Customers with Limited-English Proficiency (LEP)

Posted April 28, 2022 By Tabitha Munson Liz Kelley Kimberly Jaeger Johnson



While every utility customer pays into the funding for energy efficiency programs, not everyone experiences equal access to benefit from those programs.

As the energy efficiency industry continues to emphasize equitable program engagement, we’re learning what utilities can do to better serve customers who speak languages other than English, and/or who have Limited-English proficiency (LEP).

The Challenge

Limited-English speakers accessing energy efficiency programs face obstacles in communication and engagement. From learning about programs to the touch points throughout the customer journey, customers we spoke with described feeling overwhelmed by the idea of trying to communicate with someone in English and afraid to miss or misunderstand important details. Utilities often provide in-language resources, but not always in key dialects (Mandarin vs Cantonese Chinese) or with the same level of content (in-language product videos, vendor resources, call center support). This kind of fragmentation can be confusing or frustrating for these customers.

What can utilities do to better serve them? Based on our findings from a multicultural barriers assessment and a study on the customer journey of Limited-English proficiency customers, we highlight some ideas:

  1. Assess customers’ language needs
  2. Prioritize human-sourced translation
  3. Proactively transcreate communications and program materials

Our Findings

Understand language needs: A good place for a utility to start is by doing an assessment of customers in a utility’s service area to determine what languages customers speak. This will help to inform what languages a utility should focus on developing access in. To get an even deeper understanding, this language assessment could be combined with an assessment of cultural values and barriers for customers specific to that area. This information can illustrate how customers view energy use in their home and what they see as the biggest hurdles in accessing programs. For example, in the multicultural barriers assessment study, the findings from that study directly informed the communications used in outreach materials directed at these communities.

Prioritize human translation: While machine translation has improved in recent years, it is not yet sufficient to replace a human translator. Specifically, machine translation does not consistently translate for context – for example, in Spanish, the word “upgrade” or “actualizaciones” is only used in the context of computer upgrades. Using this term in the context of “home upgrades” can cause confusion. Although the word is an accurate translation, the context is wrong. This kind of error is more likely in cases of machine translation than human translation. For this reason, we suggest that a person review text that is generated through machine translation prior to publishing on a website or other written materials.

Shift from translation to transcreation: Reviewing marketing materials for a Southeastern utility, we found that the phrase “Lowering monthly utility bills can be a game-changer” to not translate well across cultures. For example, some may be sensitive to the idea that paying bills is a “game.” Others may think the message is not for them because they don’t identify with the idea of “playing” with their money.

Good translation conveys not only the literal meaning of the words but also a relatively comparable cultural context – for instance, translating idioms such as “raining cats and dogs” might require using a different idiom in another language. In many cases, however, there is not an equivalent in another language. In these cases, we recommend shifting to an approach of transcreation rather than translation. Transcreation is a collaborative process that leverages cultural understandings of how people communicate about different topics across languages.

Transcreation can address challenges related to a lack of conceptual correlates, that is, similar concepts in another language or culture. For instance, terms such as “energy audit,” “energy efficiency,” “energy kits,” etc. may not make sense when directly translated (just as, in fact, these terms may not mean anything to English-speakers who are unfamiliar with energy efficiency programs). In translation, these terms with no cultural correlates may present added cognitive and cultural challenges for customers who speak languages other than English, and particularly those who have immigrated recently. It may be the case that services provided by utilities in their native countries are so different than the service provided in the U.S. that foreign-born customers may have problems understanding the services offered at a conceptual level. For instance, in a recent interview with a community organization serving the Haitian community, we heard that in rural communities in Haiti people are more used to purchasing gas for cooking in cans or containers than piped into their homes. The practice of paying a bill monthly for an intangible amount of a quantity may require some adjustment or getting used-to. In these cases, fully understanding the service may involve providing more accessible and dissected information, not a mere translation from English. Adding easy to understand explanations and case studies can be valuable in these cases.

A similar example came from the online experience diary study in the Southeast, we learned from a moderator in that study that in Korean, people refer to their home in the plural (“our home”), even if only a single person is talking, or indeed lives there. Considerations around phrasing of this sort can be important when creating content for marketing outreach, engagement, and awareness.

To understand this idea of conceptual correlates, we can take the example of words about weather. Communities who live in the Sonoran Desert of the Southwestern United States have multiple words for weather events like a “monsoon,” “haboob,” or “dust devil.” By contrast, communities that live in very cold climates and experience have specific words for snow. Translating between the languages these two communities speak could prove challenging as, for example, the conceptual correlates for a monsoon might be lacking in the language spoken in another region. Further, translating idioms such as “dust devil” literally might convey the wrong idea. Instead, the best path forward would be to describe the idea in the other language.

Therefore, it is critical for native speakers to be involved when transcreating material into a new language. When aiming for effective marketing, it is important to reflect the culture of a place using native speakers, translation professionals, and insights from a cultural assessment of customers.

The Takeaway

Ensuring access to programs for customers who speak language other than English is not as simple as translating a flyer into multiple languages. Indeed, the process of translation can itself be a challenge when there are not comparable equivalents in each language or region of origin.

Furthermore, addressing barriers for customers who speak languages other than English and/or who have Limited-English proficiency cannot be done in a vacuum; other factors such as income and owning versus renting also affect how these customers approach utilities. To fully meet the needs of these customers, utilities need to better understand how these factors interact with each other and give priority to solutions that address barriers for multiple factors.

We recently lead a working group comprised of environmental justice advocates tasked with developing criteria to define disadvantaged communities. Limited-English proficiency is one of the proposed metrics under the Population Characteristics and Health Vulnerabilities category. Importantly, other metrics for race, ethnicity, income, education, employment, health impacts and sensitives, housing, energy, and communications are also proposed to assess this category. This long list shows that Limited-English proficiency is just one of many indicators under several metrics of a single category that environmental justice advocates say should be considered when determining disadvantaged communities.

In short, language and culture are an important part of the many factors that affect how a utility customer may benefit from programs. Utilities should consider these barriers and solutions when designing equitable programs.