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Spanish twists and turns

Spanish is the fourth most widely spoken language − after Mandarin, English, and Hindustani − and is arguably the most translated language in the world.

This Romance language, originally spoken in northern Spain, gradually became the principal language of government and trade in the European country. As the Spanish Empire expanded in the 15th and 16th centuries, the language spread to the Americas, Africa and Asia Pacific. There are now over 400 million people around the world who speak Spanish as their native language, and it is the official language in 21 countries. The Spanish-speaking population in the United States has been steadily growing, to the point that it ranks third in terms of Spanish-speaking population.

Although Spanish is arguably one of the easiest languages to translate for generic subjects, it poses more problems than translating into German, French or Japanese for technical texts. This is due to the well-known multiple “varieties” of Spanish. The Spanish spoken in the countries of Central America, South America, the Caribbean and the Iberian Peninsula are significantly different. Although most Spanish speakers can perceive the various forms, the key when drafting a text for the general Spanish-speaking world is to select the most recognisable term. To refer to a tank for liquids, Spaniards would prefer “depósito”, whereas others may prefer “tanque”. What to do? “Recipiente” in some cases may be a more generic and acceptable term appropriate for all.

Some more examples. The mayor of a city or town is an intendente in Argentina, a presidente municipal in Mexico and an alcalde in Spain. A waiter is a mesonero in Venezuela, a mesero in Colombia and most South America, and a camarero in Guatemala and Spain. A toothpick is a montadientes in Chile, an escarbadientes in Argentina, a picadientes in Mexico and a palillo de dientes in most other countries. A ticket can be an entrada, a boleto, a pase or simply a ticket (sometimes spelled tiqué). A toilet can be indoro, taza de baño, retrete, wáter or poceta. A simple writing pen is a bolígrafo, birome, lapicero, puntabola, esfero, pluma and lapiz-tinta. In Spain, a coche is a car, whereas in the most countries it means “baby stroller”, and in Guatemala it means “pig”.

The misuse of some words can lead to significant social embarrassment. The everyday Spanish words coger (to get or pick up) and concha (seashell) are considered vulgar and rude in some Latinamerican countries, where their meaning is “to have sex” and “vulva” respectively. A Puerto Rican would refer to a bobby pin as a pinche, which is considered an obscenity in Mexico. In Spain, pija can refer to a snobbish or posh girl, while in most other countries it is an obscenity. Just as there are differences between American and British English for referring to a “chap”, “dude”, “fellow” or “buddy”, your friend would be your güey, mano, cuate or carnal in Mexico, your mae in Costa Rica, your tío in Spain, your tipo in Colombia, your hueón in Chile and your chabón in Argentina.

Although it would be impossible to translate a text to the satisfaction of every Spanish speaker in the world, a knowledgeable translator can communicate in terminology understood by all. The worst thing to do is pretend that these difficulties do not exist. Some people believe in the existence of a universal, “generic” Spanish clearly understood by everyone, when, in reality, especially for technical language, no such Spanish exists.

The task of a Spanish translator is to be sensitive to cultural variants on an international and a local scale, and the task of an LSP is to guide clients through the complicated maze.

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