Spanish Translation Isn’t “One-Size-Fits-All”
Back to articles

Spanish Translation Isn’t “One-Size-Fits-All”

"Know your audience" is an adage that surely applies to any qualified translator, but it's even more fitting for a translator of the Spanish language. Spanish is a popular language that is rich in diversity, yet it's that diversity that makes it anything but straightforward to translate. Far from "one size fits all," Spanish translation comes in sizes ranging from pequeño to muy grande – and everything in between.

No. 2 Ranking

For starters, let's look at the numbers. Figures vary according to the source, but the Nations Online Project maintains that Spanish is the second-most widely spoken language by native speakers, amounting to around 329 million people in 44 countries worldwide who speak it as their first language, eking out English, which tallies 328 million native speakers in 112 countries. (For anyone who's counting, Chinese tops the list of native speakers at 1.2 billion in 31 countries.) If you include the people throughout the world who speak Spanish as a second or third language, the total number of Spanish speakers rises to about 500 million, according to most websites. Spanish is the official language in Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, Spain, and Venezuela as well as the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. It's also the de facto official language in Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Uruguay. Further, the Pew Research Center confirmed last year that Spanish is, by far, the most spoken non-English language in the United States, with at least 37.6 million people ages 5 and older speaking Spanish at home.

Spanish Choices

Some of the major dialects of Spanish include Castilian, Andalusian, and Murcian in Spain, Rioplatense (River Plate) in Argentina, Caribbean, Latin American, and Equatoguinean in Africa. Beyond the dialects, there are regional divisions, such as U.S. Hispanic Spanish, Central American Spanish, and European Spanish. There's also Amazonian Spanish and Andean Spanish. These divisions can be further divided into forms according to the country, including Bolivian, Colombian, Venezuelan, Ecuadorian, Guatemalan, Cuban, Costa Rican, Honduran, Paraguayan, and Uruguayan. Even within the same countries, there are differences as well.

Additionally, the sheer popularity of telenovelas and other programs televised on the likes of Telemundo, Univision, Televisa, and TV Azteca influences regional versions of Spanish. If a translator wants to communicate with different Spanish-speaking countries, then it's necessary to reach out through the local or regional dialect. Take a word as simple as "umbrella," for example. If you were translating it from English to Spanish for a publication in Colombia, then you might use the word la sombrilla, but if the publication is in Spain, then it would be best to stick to the more common el paragüas. There are plenty of other examples. In Spain, one drives a coche, but in Latin America, you would drive an auto or carro. Speaking of cars, drivers in Spain conducen while Latin American drivers manejan. In European Spanish, "to anger" is enfadar while in Latin America, it's enojar. A near-sighted Castilian Spanish speaker wears gafas, while a similarly challenged Latin American Spanish speaker would wear anteojos or lentes.

Grammar is affected as well by the differences in dialects. You might remember from your high school Spanish that Castilian Spanish uses the word vosotros in the third person, plural (you all) as the informal form of ustedes. Also, in Spanish, the word tú is the usual singular for saying "you," but in Buenos Aires, vos is used instead. The translator's use of such differences, which are comparable to British vs. American English, ensure that the translation is effective for Spanish speakers in Europe as well as Latin America.

Localization

A translator can further adjust a document to suit the nuances of similar forms of Spanish, say Guatemalan vs. Costa Rican, through "localization," or the adjustment of a translation so that it best gets across the meaning of the source language using the phrasing that suits—and respects—the culture and dialect of the target audience. Through localization, a translator can reach out to different Spanish-speaking countries.

If a translator has to figure out how to say or write the everyday English term "light bulb" in Spanish, it would help to be aware of the cultural differences that exist within Spanish-speaking countries. As outlined by the Oxford Language Dictionaries Online: "Light bulb" is bombilla in Spain, but it can be foco in Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru; bombillo in Central America and Colombia; bombita in the River Plate countries; ampolleta in Chile; and bujía in Central America. And if you ever need to have a document about "green beans" translated from English into Spanish, the experienced translator knows that it's judía verde in Spain, but habichuela, ejote, chauncha, poroto verde or vainita in different parts of Latin America.

Apparently, asi es la vida—that's life—for Spanish speakers and translators.