New York Times posts Spanish translation of immigration article

Ameena Schelling Freelance Writer
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The New York Times has already attracted attention for an article published last week by Damien Cave that examined the apparent decrease in annual illegal immigration numbers, attributing the pattern partly to improvements in Mexicans’ quality of life.

But the media has paid less attention to the Times’ relatively novel decision to post a Spanish translation of the front-page article on its website.

The original English version was posted on the website on Wednesday, while a Spanish-language translation provided by Reforma, a Mexican paper that publishes regular Spanish translations of Times articles, was posted one day later due to translation delays.

While the Times has little history of multilingual coverage, Eileen Murphy, the outlet’s vice president of corporate communications, said that the paper could offer more translated coverage in the future.

“It’s very hard to answer the question of whether we’ve ‘ever’ done anything like this before. There is just not the historical memory going back 160 years,” Murphy explained. “It’s not something that we would regularly do, but it’s certainly possible that we might explore again if content of a story lent itself to translation.”

The decision to provide an article on such a contentious issue as immigration in a language so closely tied to the conflict raises questions about the intent of the coverage, as well as about the future possibilities of bilingual coverage in foreign bureaus. (Syrian government criticizes Clinton’s comments)

Cave said that the idea originated with the author, and was inspired by the success of Cliff Levy and Ellen Barry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series for the Times on Russian corruption, which was translated into Russian and “drew a lot of response” within the country.

“My motivation was no doubt similar to his — I wanted more people to read what I wrote, and I wanted to see what kind of conversation it would stir up in Mexico,” Cave explained. “As to whether we will do it again, I suspect so, but only for stories that are long and in depth enough to warrant it.”

Cave stressed that the decision was made only on the basis of his desire to expand the availability of this particular piece, and not to serve any ideological goal.

“There was not and is not a political agenda attached to the decision to publish in Spanish,” he said. “This was one foreign correspondent’s decision, supported by editors because we had a trusted translation partner, and if anything it was a reflection of the new social media universe that we all work in.”

Yet William McGowan, author of “Grey Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means for America,” said that there could be ideological implications — even unintentional ones — behind the decision to publish the article bilingually.

“I don’t think it’s overtly political, but I think it’s implicitly political,” McGowan said, noting the possibility of an unintentional message behind Cave’s decision to publish this particular piece in Spanish, rather than pieces of equal relevance to the Spanish-speaking world on the ongoing Fast and Furious weapons investigations, or on the increasing number of violently failing Mexican states.

Murphy explained that the decision to translate this specific story was prompted by the focus of the investigative piece and its relevance for Mexican readers. “It was done because of the particular content,” she said.

But McGowan noted the pointed message of the article, titled “Better Lives for Mexicans Cut Allure of Going North,” which, he said, could be seen as advising Mexicans against moving to the United States because of a perceived drop in the American quality of life.

“From a cynical perspective, you could look at it as a public service announcement, saying, ‘Please stay home,’” McGowan said. “I do know that there are plenty of other stories that could have been translated into Spanish and put out there on a feed, and which has other — people would have had a different takeaway.”

Cave, who is a foreign correspondent for the Times based in Mexico City, said that his goal was to make his piece available to his Mexican readers, noting, “I was mainly thinking of my Twitter followers here in Mexico, who read and respond in a mix of English and Spanish. I wanted to make sure that all of them could see and comment on what I wrote.”

McGowan also noted that there were inherent political risks in extending the Times’ coverage to non-English markets, especially in such a selective fashion. Of particular concern, he explained, is the Times’ unbalanced coverage of immigration issues and the effect that extending this coverage could have.

“They will never say illegal aliens,” McGowan said of the Times. “They will say undocumented workers, even for those who are undocumented recipients of social welfare instead of workers, they’ll say migrants or sojourners,” McGowan continued. “Even when it’s completely relevant they won’t print that a criminal is an illegal worker … They back sanctuary policies for specific cities.”

In a question-and-answer session posted on the Times’ Lede blog the day the article was released, Cave did address his use of the word “illegal” in the article when a reader criticized him for including it.

“At no point in my story do I describe immigrants themselves as ‘illegals.’ Use of that word as a general catch-all strikes me as reductive and unfair,” he said. “I could have instead used undocumented or unauthorized but in a story so focused on the distinction and the interaction between legal and illegal, I felt I had to be as clear as possible.”

“Do I approve of it? I don’t know,” McGowan added of the bilingual coverage. “If it becomes a regular thing where they’re feeding the Mexican public, their coverage is extremely biased … If they do establish this as a precedent, that’s hoping they don’t introduce their trademark ideological spinning and do introduce the positive and the negative.”