Hofstra students Lucas Blocher and Elissa Cano discuss rip current safety...

Hofstra students Lucas Blocher and Elissa Cano discuss rip current safety for Spanish-speakers at a Long Beach Latino Civic Association booth in Long Beach on Saturday. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

Something's gotten lost in translation.

But a team from Hofstra University is working this summer with local Latino groups on ways to improve a national campaign to educate Spanish speakers about dangerous and deadly beach rip currents.

Hofstra University professor Jase Bernhardt, director of Sustainability Studies in the Department of Geology, Environment and Sustainability, and Spanish-speaking students Lucas Blocher and Elissa Cano found warnings in a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Spanish-language campaign on rip current safety don't always translate as promised. Sometimes words don't translate well because of differences in dialect, idioms or even generational use.

The Hofstra team's work is part of a two-year award from New York Sea Grant, a state and federally funded grant organization whose goal is the "informed stewardship" of coastal resources.

About rip currents

  • The best way to escape from a rip current is to swim out of it to either side, then back toward shore — or to let it pull you into deeper water, then swim back on either side of the rip channel. 
  • A rip current can pull you away from shore at a rate of eight feet per second. Trying to fight that force can be exhausting, which leads to drowning.
  • Most rip currents are found at ocean beaches where the tidal pulls create treacherous surf conditions.

The headline on NOAA's English-language version reads: Rip Currents.

The Spanish version reads: Corrientes de Resaca.

Online searches for translations of resaca yield undertow, pull and undercurrent, backlash, reaction and jetsam. 

But the most common translation on Google translate is hangover.

As Nelly Romero, member support coordinator with the Long Beach Latino Civic Association, said: "Resaca is a very common word, but with different meanings, depending where you're from. Come from a place where there's no ocean or water and you might not know the word — at least as it's used here … It's like when you talk about the weather and say, 'El Niño.'

"You know it's not a baby … It's something else."

Working with Bernhardt, the LBLCA will conduct a focus group this week to see how the translations might be improved. Bernhardt and Romero said other aspects of the warning sheets needed to be changed, as well. Some of the information is so detailed as to be overwhelming for Spanish-speaking beachgoers, Romero said. And, Bernhardt noted, the warning page shows a light-skinned male lifeguard "straight out of Baywatch."

Feedback, he said, suggests the photo could better reflect a lifeguard and beachgoers who are Latino.

NOAA and the National Weather Service estimate that about 100 bathers, swimmers and other beachgoers in the United States die annually from rip currents.

As of July 27, 31 deaths had been attributed to rip currents nationally, NOAA said.

On July 19, East Hampton Town Police said Washington state native Benjamin Z. Kitburi, 31, who was working on the East End for the summer, drowned at Ditch Plains Beach in Montauk — after a rip current swept him, his fiancee and a friend into deep Atlantic Ocean waters at the unguarded beach. The two others survived

Rip currents are "narrow channels of fast-moving water" that pull swimmers away from shore, according to NOAA — sometimes, faster than the speed of an Olympic swimmer.

Berhardt said he hoped the Spanish translations could become a model for future translations, including Chinese and Russian.

Recommendations will be presented to NOAA following completion of the study, which runs until Feb. 1, 2024.

"Every year, we see rip current fatalities," Bernhardt said, "and with the right information they're all preventable. We want that number to be zero. We don't want any barriers — especially, a language barrier — to be the reason it isn't."

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