December 2008
By José Gambín and Igor Zubicaray

José Gambín, managing director at AbroadLink, has worked as a freelance translator, in-house translator, desktop publisher and project manager.


Igor Zubicaray is Spanish senior translator  at AbroadLink with a degree in law and a degree in translation and interpreting.

Spanish for local and global markets

In the translation and localization business we often come across the terms US Spanish and Latin American Spanish. Are there any differences between them? In what way do they differ from International Spanish and Neutral Spanish? Despite the slight variations that may occur in US Spanish, Latin American (LA) Spanish, International Spanish and Neutral Spanish, they all have one thing in common: none of them actually exist.

Many will argue that Spanish is essentially the same all over the Spanish-speaking world and that the main differences can be found in casual speech and not in written formal speech. It is true that as the register becomes more formal, Spanish tends to become more uniform. Everyday words, however, which are the most prone to experience variations due to the constant use we make of them, can also be widely found in written texts.

Translations should sound natural, as though there were no source text. Setting aside certain types of translations (literary, sworn and under certain circumstances, legal translations), the ideal translation should sound as if it were indeed an original text, written by the audience to which it is addressed, and thus containing no “alien” terms. Is it then possible to produce good-quality translations when translating into US, LA, International or Neutral Spanish? In the end, isn’t translation about choosing the right word?

LA Spanish: too good to be true

Anyone asked to translate a text into LA Spanish would be happy as a pig in mud if there were such a thing as a standard LA Spanish. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. The idea of LA Spanish comes from the popular misconception of Spanish as a unity in every Spanish-speaking country in the Americas, as opposed to European (Castilian) Spanish. However, even within the same country, the Spanish spoken in Central and South America is a medley, showing as many differences among them as can be found between Castilian Spanish and any of these American variants.

According to Professor John Lipski in an invited lecture at the University of Chicago (2007), three main factors explain this diversification: the varieties spoken by Spanish settlers; contact with other languages, namely indigenous languages, African languages spoken by slaves and languages spoken by immigrants of the latest centuries; and the catalytic effect that emerging cities in Spanish America exerted on regional varieties of Spanish.

It never rains but it pours

The misconception underlying the idea of LA Spanish has spread beyond the Mexican border, propagating from Maine to Washington.

With a population of 44 million, which accounts for almost 14.8% of the total US population (data from the American Community Survey 2006 of the US Census Bureau), and a growing purchasing power, US Hispanics — and sometimes by extension larger Hispanic markets — have become a target for an increasing number of companies that now see them as potential buyers. As a result, these companies ask for translations of their advertising material and their product documentation. But these translations are usually demanded in US Spanish.

Like LA Spanish, US Spanish is not a reality; it is only the reflection of businesses’ needs to reduce costs. Hispanics in the United States represent a very heterogeneous group made up on the one hand of Spanish speakers born in the United States, who use different Spanish varieties according to the variant of the Spanish language spoken in the country of origin of their parents or other ancestors and whose Spanish is influenced by English to a greater or lesser extent. On the other hand, there is always ongoing immigration of people from different countries and backgrounds, who also use different Spanish varieties and are not aware of new words created by American-born Hispanics. It must certainly be hard for many of these newcomers to understand Voy a vacunar la carpeta as the Spanglishized “I am going to vacuum the carpet.” That sentence will just have the ludicrous old-country meaning “I am going to vaccinate the folder.”

In the middle of this confusion one question still remains: How can one tackle a translation into US Spanish or LA Spanish?

Solutions for translations into US and LA Spanish

The first thing that should be considered before beginning a translation is its purpose (skopos) and the target audience, which depends, among other things, on the type of text and target market.

For instance, when translating a user manual, it is important to take into account whether the product will be used by specialized technicians (as in the case of a milling machine) or by ordinary people (as in the case of the user manual of an inkjet printer). As a rule, specialized technical terminology is more unlikely to deviate from a standard version of Spanish. It may be accompanied in the same text, however, by common words that can vary substantially depending on the country (see sidebar on page 36). The main purpose of these texts is to provide a description and clear instructions about the product, so it is extremely important to choose the right terminology and keep it consistent throughout the whole translation. As companies try to minimize expenses and maximize income, we won’t tell you that to avoid any risk of misunderstanding you should use an editor for any or all Spanish variations. Instead, make sure that your language provider uses a translator/editor native to your most important market (that is to say, if you sell more machines in Mexico, use a Mexican native speaker) and that the editor uses the most neutral expressions whenever possible.

The same rule applies for marketing material: words have to be chosen carefully because they contain cultural references, puns and other wordplays.

All in all, the chosen terminology and vocabulary are essential to all sorts of translations if we want them to sound natural and not lead to misinterpretation. How could a lemon juice commercial be translated into a single LA Spanish when lemon is limón in Argentina but lima in Mexico or Peru? Not a huge difference, but when one knows that lima is Argentinean Spanish for lime and the Mexican and Peruvian word for this citrus is limón, the situation becomes a bit more confusing.

Thus, it would be highly advisable that the translator had information relating to the market to which the product or text is addressed. That way, if a company is, for example, planning to market a product for the upper class in Argentina, Paraguay and Peru, the ideal solution, providing that the budget is limited and cannot cover the expenses of three different translations, would not consist in requesting a translation into LA Spanish, but rather in taking into account the purchase expectations of that product in each country and, accordingly, hiring a translator from the country where the purchase expectations are higher. This translator should avoid the use of localism, and the translation will sound as unnatural to the other two countries as LA Spanish does, but at least it will satisfy the main purchasers of the product. This solution could also be applied to the US Hispanic market.

A demographic approach to US Spanish

The Hispanic population has grown dramatically in the United States over the last 20 years. According to the US Census 1990 and 2000, the number of Hispanic population rose from 22 million in 1990 to 35 million in 2000, an increase of 57.9%. The data gathered in the American Community Survey 2006 showed that the Hispanic or Latino population had reached 44 million, representing almost 14.8% of the total US population. Of these, 34 million declared speaking Spanish at home, of which 16 million declared speaking English less than “very well.”

Data from the American Community Survey 2006 also revealed that the main country of origin of Hispanics in the United States is Mexico (28 million), followed by Puerto Rico (nearly 4 million) and Cuba (1.5 million). The remaining 10 million come from different origins. The map in Figure 1 is a simplified version of this data.

When facing a translation into US Spanish, this variety of backgrounds certainly poses a problem in terms of choice of the most appropriate vocabulary. In other words, imagine you sell car trunks to the Hispanic market in the United States: Is it a better choice to use Puerto Rican baúl for the car trunk or Mexican cajuela? Given the overwhelming majority of Hispanics of Mexican origin, it seems logical that Mexican Spanish should be used as the default variant for translations into US Spanish. However, two things should also be taken into account: the operating area of the company that orders the translation and the target audience of the translation.

The first approach lies in the locale where the company plans to offer its products. If we take a look at the map (Figure 1), the population of Mexican origin is clearly predominant in some states. For instance, in Arizona it represents up to 88.8% of the total Hispanic population. Accordingly, one could think that hiring a Mexican translator would be the preferable decision if the company desired to market its products in the Western region. On the other hand, a Puerto Rican would best suit the needs of a company operating in the Northeastern region. It goes without saying that the translator should try to avoid words that are too local, mainly in those cases when there is no highly-predominant minority in the region. Although this approach could be enough in many cases, especially when translating texts not related to specific companies, a second, more restrictive, app-roach should also be considered.

Taking the potential buyers of a given product into account represents a more specific approach to solving the problem of this sort of translations into US Spanish. Sometimes, the origin of the potential buyers does not match the origin of the main minority, as can happen, for example, with luxury items such as an expensive sports car. In such cases, the most advisable solution would consist of hiring a translator with the same origin as the targeted community, regardless of what the largest minority is in that particular region. This way, he or she will definitely know if the word to use is cajuela, baúl or something else.

Software localization: Microsoft approach

Most software is originally developed in English, so over the years different Spanish-speaking countries have provided different translations for new terms.

Microsoft’s approach to this situation has been quite the opposite. Through its Spanish Style Guide and terminology database (TRES), the company has aimed to provide a single translation for each new term that arises as well as to unify already existing terminology across the Spanish-speaking world. It has also tried to follow a Neutral Spanish — a Spanish that can be understandable everywhere and is not offensive to any Spanish speaker. This includes choosing a term or expression not used anywhere but understandable in every country (equipo for computer), choosing the most widespread expression or term (mouse instead of ratón, this last term being used exclusively in Spain) or prohibiting the use of certain words or expressions (such as coger, a tabooed word in many Latin American countries, where it has a sexual connotation, although perfectly normal and used every day in Spain, where it innocently means to take).

However, Microsoft reckons in its Span-ish Style Guide that this approach often entails rejection from users for whom the terminology is foreign, simply because it does not sound natural to any Spanish speaker. The idea behind this neutral Spanish is again commercial and not linguistic. As Microsoft products are marketed worldwide, it is cheaper to produce only one version of the product in Spanish.

What to consider when ‘neutralizing’ Spanish

One of the main problems and source of misunderstandings when translating into any kind of Neutral Spanish comes from the local use of polysemic words, that is, words with different meanings. For example, when Mexicans cook la comida, they cook lunch, whereas Peruvians or Colombians will be cooking dinner instead. A Mexican can take a camión (“bus” in Mexican Spanish) to go home for his comida, but a Colombian will never expect a camión (truck) to take him anywhere. If he decides to take the bus, he will coger el autobús. Here we come across the classic misunderstanding of the verb coger, harmless and used constantly in some countries to mean take, while tabooed in others, like Argentina or Uruguay, where it is a rude word for having sexual intercourse. So, while a Spaniard coge el autobús or a Cuban coge la guagua (be careful with this expression in Chile, where guagua means baby), an Argentinian toma el colectivo and a Mexican toma/agarra el camión.

When a word becomes taboo, usually due to sexual connotations, its use in its original meaning or meanings tries to be avoided and it is consigned to the sphere of the forbidden. For example, the word pico (peak or beak) represents one of the ways to designate the male sex organ in Chile. Therefore, contrary to what happens in many Latin American countries, a Chilean will never say hora pico to refer to the peak hour, but hora punta or even hora peak. The film Dante’s Peak, whose dubbed version was titled El Pico de Dante in many Latin American countries, was, for obvious reasons, marketed in Chile under the name La Furia de la Montaña (The Anger of the Mountain). Continuing with misinterpretations, the word polla has different meanings in the Spanish-speaking world besides female chicken: bet in general, lottery in Chile, crib in Ecuador or gob (of spit) in El Salvador, to name a few; but it has become increasingly tabooed in Spain where it again refers to the male sex organ (so yes, we only have male chickens in our farms now). In Argentina, the word concha (shell) is a tabooed word used to refer to the female genitals. Therefore, it is not very advisable to say that you are going to the beach to coger conchas (gather shells) unless you want to provoke outright hilarity or be taken for a sex maniac. In other countries, though, it is even used as a nickname for Concepción. A last piece of advice: when asking for plastic bags in Ecuador or the Dominican Republic, do not ask a man if he tiene bolsas or you will be questioning his manliness. You’d better ask for fundas.

As we can see, words or expressions that are completely normal in some countries can lead to confusion or hilarity, or even be offensive in others depending on the context in which they are being used. This is one of the drawbacks of any artificial sort of Spanish such as LA or US Spanish: as these words need to be replaced by others, the result is a clumsy speech that can be understood by anyone but which nobody feels is theirs. Coger el autobús may sound odd or funny to Argentinians, but it is the most common way to take the bus in Colombia.

Final word

Although Neutral Spanish, LA Spanish and US Spanish are sometimes unavoidable, in those cases where the company has a limited budget and is targeting a widespread market, companies should consider clearly defining their markets in order to request the translation that best fits their needs rather than automatically going for a translation into any of these artificial Spanish variants at the high expense of quality.

When commonly used words in technical texts become a problem

Although specialized technical terminology does not usually show important variations among the different variants of Spanish, it goes without saying that some words usually found in technical texts are commonly used in everyday speech. As a result of this use in oral speech, the differences become greater. Let’s focus, for instance, on the automotive industry.

Being products used across the world, not only do cars receive different names depending on the region (auto, carro, coche), but their main parts are also subject to significant variations, which may hinder communication and even lead to misunderstandings.

One of these sources of misunderstandings can be found in Table 1, which includes examples of some variations with their respective translations in English. The table only aims to illustrate the most commonly used terms in each of the countries chosen, but differences may be found among different regions within the same country. If we look at the terms tire and rim, we will see that the Spanish llanta designates the rim in Argentina and Spain, but Colombians, Mexicans or Peruvians will rather use this term to refer to the tire. In other words, the same term refers to different realities depending on the country, representing a major problem when trying to produce a translation into LA Spanish, US Spanish or any other one-size-fits-all version of Spanish.

Another source of problems is terms that would be hardly under-standable in some countries although not misleading. For example, Mexican terms llanta de refacción (spare wheel) and cajuela (trunk) would be difficult to understand in Argentina or Spain, as well as the Puerto Rican terms guía (spare wheel) and tapabocinas (hubcap). Hypothetically, these sorts of terms could be avoided in a translation targeted at a wide Spanish-speaking public, but the terms chosen would almost certainly sound unnatural to the affected countries.

Finally, some terms specific to certain countries would probably be understandable in others, although they could sometimes represent an obstacle to communication or sound odd, to a greater or lesser extent.

Table 1 is only an example of the variations that may be found among the different variants of Spanish in the same field of knowledge. The automotive industry is not, however, the only field in which these differences are evident. For instance, another field in which differences are marked is the nutrition industry. As shown with the lima/limón example in the main Gambín/Zubicaray article, fruits and vegetables receive different names in different countries. What for a Mexican is a chícharo (green pea), for an Argentinean is an arveja and for a Spaniard a guisante. On the other hand, in Spain chícharo is a term unknown in some regions, whereas in some others it refers to a chickpea. Other differences include chabacano (Mex) vs. damasco (Arg, Chi, Peru) and albaricoque (Spain); toronja (Mex) vs. pomelo (Arg), aguacate (Mex) vs. palta (Arg); or fresa (Mex) vs. frutilla (Arg), to name a few.

Table 1: Automotive terms in Spanish-speaking countries.

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