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A Spanish computer dilemma

Spanish has three words for “computer”. Spain uses “ordenador”, probably modelled on the French “ordinateur”, meaning something like a “sorting machine”. Most of Latin America uses either “computadora” (feminine) or “computador” (masculine), modelled on the English and meaning “calculating machine”.

(The English word “computer” was used in the early 20th century to describe people whose job was to carry out calculations, in the days before machines could do it for them. Then along came “electronic computers” to replace them.)

A quick Google search gives the following relative usage:

“el ordenador”: 7 million hits
“el computador” 0.5 million hits
“la computadora” 4 million hits

This is quite a dilemma when translating into “universal” or “neutral” Spanish, i.e. Spanish which should feel as natural as possible to the target audience of the translation. “Ordenador” for Spain and “computadora” for Mexico, but what do you use when you want to satisfy everybody?

The other day we had to translate “computer room”, which could be

“sala de ordenadores” 105K hits
“sala de computadoras” 19K hits
“sala de cómputo” 96K hits

Sometimes it’s best to avoid the problem by thinking “out of the box”. We eventually came up with “sala de informática” (literally computer science room) which not only satisfies all Spanish speakers but got almost 600 thousand Google hits.

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