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Breaking into the Spanish-Language Greeting Card Market

A Talk with Susana Baughman, Spanish Language Editor

How did you start writing greeting cards?

In 1988, I saw an ad in the paper for a Spanish editor position with Gibson Greetings. I was Sales Manager at a local manufacturing company and I was looking for a change after 11 very stressful years in domestic and international sales. I was tired of traveling and needed an outlet for my creativity. Gibson was the ideal place to let my creativity go free. I was hired as Managing Editor of the Spanish Lines and I became an integral part of a decision-making team that revolutionized the way Gibson was creating cards for the Spanish market in the U.S.

Do Spanish cards differ much from English-language cards?

They really don't differ much from a conceptual and creative point of view. That was one of the hardest points to get across at the time I joined Gibson because everyone thought Spanish cards had to be so different. You do have to be careful with some of the art imagery that can be construed as offensive. As far as the language, you have to use Castilian, or what's commonly known as "TV Spanish". It's a language devoid of colloquialisms, slang, etc. Not writing in a general Spanish would be like using U.S slang and selling it in England, or vice versa. Some things might be very offensive, or odd or funny, or all of the above. This not only applies to greeting cards, but to anything anyone creates in Spanish, whether it's textbooks, ad campaigns, novelties, sales literature, etc. I can think of many instances where non-multicultural translators translated complete ad campaigns for major companies without knowing that the word or words they had chosen were fine in the country where they were born but were very offensive or ridiculous in other countries. For example, in Uruguay, where I am from, when you are broke you say (slang): "Estoy pato o pata". In Puerto Rico, I would be saying: "I am gay". See what I mean? The Raid campaign some years back used the slogan "Kill your bugs" and it was translated as "Mate sus bichos". Well, bicho is a slang word for penis in some parts of Mexico. So, the ad that was plastered on billboards all over Mexico, was in fact saying: Kill your penis.

Do direct translations work?

In the majority of the cases, direct translations do not work. Grammar, of course, is completely different, as is sentence structure. A literal translation would be awkward and just that, a literal translation that has failed to be an instrument of communication or of expression. If you have to stop and think what it's saying, or if you detect errors or typos, you lost the attention and the respect of that reader. In greeting cards and novelties, many times we use what in the business we call "transcreation". You get the general idea from the English text and rewrite it in Spanish. When a company contacts you and asks you to "translate" their verses, you have to explain that there is no such thing as "translating" their verses. You are actually writing fresh and new verses with the general idea from the English.

This is even more critical to understand when writing rhyme. There's no way you can "translate" rhyme. I re-wrote all of Helen Steiner Rice's verses in Spanish and although they had her general "feeling", and we put her name at the end of the verse and called it The Helen Steiner Rice Promotion, we all knew that it was not an exact replica of the original. The Spanish Helen Steiner Rice cards blew out of the stores. Rhyme sells very well in Spanish. They are winners every time! One thing to make your potential greeting-card or novelty client understand is that you are actually writing something fresh and not merely translating. This is very important, because you will find some clients who don't hesitate to pay $100 or $150 for an English verse, but will not even consider paying you $50 or $75 for what they think is just a translation of their original English, which is not.

A critical part of having a successful greeting-card line is proofreading. A wonderful, impeccable piece of writing can be destroyed by poor proofreading before the card is printed. It's happened many times. Especially when you are dealing with companies where Spanish greeting cards are treated as a stepchild. The people in charge of production have no concept of what an error can do for the card, after all, it's not an English card that everyone at the company can tell it has an error, right?? So, I really can't emphasize enough the importance of insisting on proofing the cards yourself when you are freelancing. I do that all the time with other greeting card companies I freelance for, and it's worth it.

Is there a good selection of product for this very important Spanish market?

There is a limited selection. The greeting-card market is only being served, in a large scale, by Hallmark, American Greetings and Paramount . The novelty market is being served by CM Paula. There are a other small companies out there trying to tackle the need, but they are failing with the language. Companies should treat Spanish products with the same respect they treat their English products, and create Spanish programs as a main idea and not as an afterthought. I would love to see more companies -- especially small, specialty companies -- enter the business. The Hispanic market in this country is the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, as we all know, and its growth has surpassed by 20 years all demographic predictions made just 8 years ago. Eight years ago, demographers were estimating that by the year 2025 Hispanics would be the largest minority sector in the U.S. Following those estimates, many companies have been thinking that they still had plenty of time to jump on the Hispanic bandwagon... Well, Folks, there is no more time -- the time is now! This market it's only going to get bigger and it should be taken into consideration. It's an untapped market that needs to be addressed with respect for its language. If manufacturers do it right, they will reap incredible benefits.

Should there be a lot of difference in the art used on Spanish cards?

We shouldn't see much difference. Latinos pretty much like the same stuff non-Latinos like. This has been very evident in focus groups I've participated. We had an array of designs, and people like the same designs that people like in the non-Latino focus groups. I think good taste is universal and some art directors tend to think that art for Spanish cards has to be gaudy, with too much color, etc. That is far from true. Pastels are the biggest sellers.

Do you have different holidays or occasions?

There are some holidays that Spanish lines tend to cover but there are mostly a marketing gimmick to sell lines to Anglo buyers. Those cards are very poor sellers: Epiphany or Three Kings Day is one that comes to mind. On the other hand, there is an occasion that is not covered in English that's a definite seller in Spanish -- the 15th birthday for a girl. It's the coming of age. It's very celebrated and a definite card-giving occasion. I would recommend having this title in all lines.

Could someone who learned Spanish as a second language be a good Spanish-card writer?

Can someone who speaks English from birth be a good greeting-card writer? Maybe yes, maybe no. It's not only a matter of language; it's a matter of writing ability and a variety of other factors, as we all know. A good Spanish-card writer, just as a good Spanish translator, must be a good writer, to start with, and have a total command of the Spanish language. I also believe the person must be a native, bilingual and multicultural. Companies should really do their homework to avoid having on the shelves and in the warehouse thousands of cards of a product that no one will buy. If you think English is a complicated language to write correctly, think of Spanish as even more complicated. There's stuff a non-native may never comprehend, no matter how good he/she is with Spanish. I've been in the business for 30 years and I've encountered many, many non-natives who have incredible credentials but who cannot write a paragraph without errors, in impeccable Spanish.

Are there any specific needs not being addressed?

Many, but the most important one is to make the Hispanic consumer feel important and valued by offering a great product, free of errors. Listen to the consumer, show the consumer that the Spanish line is a truly valuable part of that company's business. Learn from Hallmark! Don't do Spanish as an afterthought, create a line just as you do the English line. That advice, of course, is not directed at the freelancers but at the companies that create the products.

Do you have any advice for writers interested in freelancing in Spanish-language cards?

Take pride in what you do and do the best you are capable of doing. Like with any other career, approach this as if you were writing in hopes of getting a Pulitzer Prize. You are touching lives; you are helping people express things they don't know how to express. A few years ago, I stood in front of Gibson's Spanish-card offering in Los Angeles and I started talking to the people who were buying my cards. When I asked for their opinion and told them that I had written those cards, they couldn't believe it! Their faces brightened up and started pulling cards and showing me things. "See, I sent this one to my brother. It's exactly what I feel about him. See, I sent that one to my aunt..." And so on. That was priceless. People do care. Those Hallmark commercials are for real!

What do you like most about greeting card work?

Because of the lack of an abundance of people who understand the Hispanic market here and outside the U.S., I have been lucky because I've always gotten involved in the whole process, from art selection to writing. That's what I like most. Seeing a product that starts with a thought, become a tangible card that's going to make someone smile -- a smile I will never see...

Copyright © 2003 Strictly Spanish
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


For the past 30 years, Susana Schultz (formerly Baughman) has been a technical translator, writer and editor. She was Managing Editor at Gibson Greetings for 12 years, creating what was considered one of the best lines of Spanish greeting cards in the country. Since then, Susana has developed and written greeting cards and novelties for many companies. She also was Associate Editor of El Hospital, a prestigious Spanish-language medical/trade journal. She is a native of Uruguay and a resident of Ohio since 1976. Susana is the owner of Strictly Spanish, a Spanish-language communications company. For more information, please visit her website at http://www.strictlyspanish.com.

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