The world is an enormous melting pot of cultures and languages that are forever crossing each other’s borders, and because more and more business is being conducted globally, effective international communication is a vital component of successful global investment. Although English is renowned as the world’s ‘lingua franca’, Spanish ranks higher than English as the second most spoken language in the world. It is also the official language of 31 countries, the third most used language on the internet and one of the top ten languages for mobile app localisation. It is not surprising then that a lot of Spanish and English speaking companies conduct business between each other. This is why it is important for translation between the two languages to be correctly conveyed and reach the right target audience. There are many differences and considerations to take on board when translating between English and Spanish, below are just a few tips to acknowledge:-
Tip one – Numbers
It may be easy to count one, two, three, but when it comes to writing numbers in different languages it’s not as straightforward. In English it is standard practice to insert a comma to separate every three numbers e.g. 1,000,000, whereas in Spanish it would be written 1 000 000 (although traditionally it was actually written with full stops 1.000.000). However, if the number is smaller than 10,000 in Spanish then the space would disappear e.g. 1,300 in English would be 1300 in Spanish. Confusing to say the least! The same practice with regard to numbers would also apply when writing years, page numbers, verses, street numbers, postcodes, P.O. boxes, numbers of legal articles, decrees, or laws. Just to confuse matters even more, commas are used in place of decimal points in Spanish e.g. 186,33 €.
Tip two – Alphabet and punctuation
Although the two languages have similar alphabets, the main difference that jumps out in Spanish is that the Spanish alphabet has 27 letters, the additional letter being ñ (pronounced eh-nyeh), which comes after n.
Concerning punctuation, there are a few differences, one of which includes the addition of accents in Spanish on the vowels. The a, e, i, o and u can be written á,é,í, ó and ú, which would indicate syllable stress and emphasis on these occasions. Using a native Spanish translator would ensure the correct usage of these letters and provide a translation that looks like it was written by a Spaniard.
It is also useful to note there is a difference between English and Spanish with regards to the question mark and exclamation mark. Unique to the Spanish language there are two of each. Standard Spanish grammar rules apply the usual question or exclamation mark at the end of the question or exclamation, but also add an additional inverted one at the beginning e.g. ¡Qué suerte! (How lucky!) or ¿Qué hora es? (What time is it?). Another consideration is that this punctuation does not necessarily come at the beginning of the sentence ‘Estoy contenta, ¿y tú? (I’m happy, are you?), plus if you have a rhetorical statement in Spanish, which is like asking a question in a statement, it would be written as follows, ¿Cómo lo hace! (How does she do it? / I don’t see how she does it!).
Why the rule exists is another question; perhaps in times gone by it was added to alert the reader straightaway that the sentence they were about to read was a question, or perhaps with the exclamation mark it was to highlight emphasis, just like the accents on vowels. Whatever the reason, it is important to make sure that the punctuation rules are correct, showing that the rules of the language have been respected and most importantly talks directly to its target audience.
Tip three – Localisation
It is important to take note of your target audience whether it is Spanish or English, as there is not just one form of Spanish or English, there are multiple. Just like there are many words that vary between UK and U.S English e.g. (UK) boot (of car) / (U.S) trunk, or spellings e.g. colour / color, localise / localize, Spanish also offers a myriad of regional varieties including European, South American and Latin American Spanish. For instance ‘carro’ in European Spanish means a cart in which you transport things, whereas in Latin American Spanish, it translates as car. Likewise ‘coche’, which is a car in Spain, is a baby stroller in Latin America (or do I mean pram, depending on which English you’re using!). You would also not want to make the mistake of saying ‘coger un autobús’ (“catch a bus” in European Spanish) in Mexico, unless you want to say you are making love to a bus! It doesn’t stop there, as Spanish in South America varies from country to country e.g. terms or phrases used in Peruvian Spanish might not be understood by Chileans. Mind boggling!
This is why it is recommended to employ a qualified and professional translator who is native of the target language, so that if your target country were Argentina, then an Argentinian translator who can localise the Spanish correctly would be best so as not to confuse your target audience.
Tip four – Text length
According to research Spanish translations are about 30% longer than their original English source text! So that’s why an English book translated into Spanish has more pages! But what if you are short on space as with call to actions in sales driven text, navigation menus on websites and app store descriptions or interface texts? You would need to make sure that the translation is adapted to fit the allocated space, whilst ensuring that the original message is kept. This is why it is important to employ not only a native translator, but also a specialist in the subject matter, so for instance if it is a website translation, then a web specialist would be more appropriate.
It’s not only longer translations that need to be taken into consideration. You also need to be prepared to take a longer breath when reading out a Spanish sentence as their sentence structures are much longer than English. One paragraph in English might have three sentences, unlike in Spanish a sentence might take up a whole paragraph! This would require the native English translator to make sure that the long Spanish sentence was in bite size pieces to be more reflective of the English language.
Tip five – Cultural nuances
Spanish has many cultural nuances unique to its own language, one of which is the formal and informal use of the pronoun ‘you’. ‘Usted’ is used as a sign of respect or in a formal business setting for instance, whereas ‘tú’ is informal and used between those who are familiar with each other. So what do you do when you translate from Spanish to English? How do you convey this formality or informality, when this nuance doesn’t exist in English? This is where a professional translator would adapt the text by using other English words of formal and informal registers, so that the same level of formality is preserved.
By Madeline Prusmann, Project Manager, April 2018