(screenshot taken from a Google Translated version of CuidadoDeSalud.gov)

According to an AP report, users of CuidadoDeSalud.gov, the Spanish-language version of HealthCare.gov, have been experiencing more than a few problems. Russell Contreras and Kelli Kennedy write:

Since the site has been active, users have reported disappointment and frustration in both the functionality and language.

For example, links comparing insurance plans took users to the English version of the options. That glitch was fixed last week after The Associated Press contacted Health and Human Services to ask about the problem.

As for the language, Plaza, the New Mexico professor, said a recent examination by her research students concluded that the translations were done “by a computer-generated process” and came across as awkward.

“There are problems with the verbs and word order that make sentences hard to understand,” said Plaza, who helped develop an audio version to help residents in New Mexico sign up.

“Sometimes,” she added, “it’s just the terms they use.”

The website translates “premium” into “prima,” but that Spanish word is more commonly used to mean a female cousin, Plaza said. A more accurate translation, she said, would be “cuotas,” ”couta mensual” or “costo annual.”

Ah, yes. Nothing makes for easy comprehension like running technical government prose through a computer translator, known for its subtle ear for nuance and tone.

“Don’t be alarmed if your female cousin goes up next year.” What? Goes up where? Carrie, are you okay? “Your female cousin will stay the same.” Gee, that’s easy for you to say.

Everyone’s had a brutal run-in with idiom in the course of translation. Computers only exacerbate the problem. It’s like a game of diabolical telephone. A “fire drill” becomes a “tool for boring holes in flames.” A simple instruction such as “Do not use any special characters or characters with accents,” in the hands of the wrong translator, becomes a sinister warning: “Make no utilization of unique characters or emphatic personages.” You can’t tell a translator program that what you want is your children’s eligibility for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). It keeps dutifully informing you that “Your children may be eligible for (FRIED POTATO CRISP).”

To get a sense of what it might feel like to have a computer-translated health insurance Web site on your hands, I tried browsing the Google-Spanish-to-English-translated version of CuidadoDeSalud.gov.

Within a few seconds, I was lost.

It offered me three buttons: “TIPS: REGISTER TO HELP YOU,” “REQUEST COVERAGE HEALTH NOW” and the intriguing, “IF YOU CAN FIND: GET COSTS REDUCED.” I clicked “Request Coverage Health Now” and was informed, “We are slightly releasing new tools for you to request and enroll in health coverage and continue to improve the content of it. Your opinion is important as we continue to improve.”

I couldn’t get any farther registering, so I looked at help articles instead. “Tips for Individuals” offered a variety of helpful topics. “How to save money on coverage.” Fine. “Tips to help you enroll.” Fine. “How does Act I care?” What?

In answer to the question of How Does Act I care, a handy article explains:
“The Act protects
-Building the insurance market , a new way for individuals, families and small businesses obtain health coverage
-It forces insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions
-It helps you understand your benefits
-Blames insurance companies”

So that’s, uh, good, I think. What we needed was a health-care system that blames insurance companies. That is exactly what Act I cares about.

“Could not you register on or before December 23?” the bottom of the page asks. “Even we can help you get coverage.” EVEN THEY CAN!

I hope the actual experience for users is better than this approximation. Even at its best, the site was a little awkward, as when it promised “breast-feeding equipment and advice to pregnant and lactating women” instead of “breast-feeding equipment and counseling.” And for me, the stakes were — nothing. No wonder the AP reported people calling the Spanish-language hotline desperate to have actual people explain what on earth was going on.

It’s hard enough filling out forms correctly when they were written in your language by a human. Even then, it’s not as quite easy as pie, or even slightly as facile as torte (as the site might say). And leave my female cousins out of it.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.