English to Spanish translation: challenges and solutions

Spanish is a world language. The number of Spanish speakers in the world is somewhere over 400 million speakers, spread over a huge geographical area including Spain, Argentina, Paraguay and many other countries.

Spanish is the majority language in 21 states, and widely spoken in other countries traditionally dominated by English such as the US.

The number of Spanish speakers in the US is around 50 million with the number increasing dramatically.

In fact even in New York, over twenty five percent of the population speak Spanish. I experienced this directly when initially asking for directions in English only to be met with a look of incomprehension. I tried again in Spanish, and was met with a smile (and directions).

It has been predicted that by the year 2050, there will be over 100 million Spanish speakers living in the US. Having been to New York recently, this comes as no surprise to me.

Spanish speaking markets

The Spanish-speaking population is one of the fasting growing market segments worldwide. This raises the possibility of expanding a business presence in foreign markets through international ecomerce expansion, and at a reasonable entry cost.

The expansion into the Spanish speaking market is a often neglected as a strategic aim, in particlar by small and medium sized business.

In part, this is due to a lack of in-house resources and knowledge of how best to approach the Spanish speaking market, and tap into the growth opportunities available.

At the most basic level, there is a lack of knowledge of how to localise websites into Spanish, how to promote and fulfill orders originating in other countries and how to perform some basic SEO.

It is no secret or surprise that big brands are constantly looking towards new international markets to expand their brand reach, and there is no reason why smaller organisations can not do the same. The initial price barriers needed to enhance a business presence in foreign markets are low.

Translating into Spanish

The starting point would normally be to have a website, pages from a website or other documentation translated into neutral Spanish.

Spanish is a global language, and similarly to the differences existing between the English spoken in Australia, the United Kingdom or USA, differences exist between different varieties of Spanish.

There are differences in both grammar, colloquialisms and some commonly used words.

The complication should not be exagerated and doesn't affect communication, but a website localised into country specific Spanish is likely to be more effective than one that is not.

An example of the difference would be in American English, the words 'trunk' and 'windshield' are used for 'boot' and 'windscreen'. Most people who speak English (in the UK) would know the meaning of both words. We have after all, watched an enormous amount of American television over the years.

But 'boot' and 'windscreen' sound and read more naturally to English speakers from England, and a website localised into UK English would use these words instead of the American equivalent.

The same occurs is true in Spanish. A biro (ball-point pen) is 'bolí' in Spain, 'esfero' in Columbia and 'lapicero' in Peru. Localising to your audience will give better results or conversion rates.

In addition to the suggestions in this guide to finding and employing translators, the country of origin will also be important, if you want a country specific Spanish translation.

Spanish. Formalities

Spanish, unlike English, has a more formal style and use of language that may be used depending on the audience. The difference in style is not as pronounced as in a Russian translation, but using the correct register of language is equally important.

Levels of formality may vary on a country by country basis. Latin Americans Spanish speakers are less ready to use 'tú' than speakers from Spain.

The example usually given to describe formality is that Spanish has two ways to say 'you'.

The pronoun 'tú' as an informal way of saying 'you', and 'usted' is more formal. Vos' is also used instead of tú' in many parts of Latin America (but not all).

There are many other examples, and the differences are considerably more complicated than shown. But really, unless you have a particular interest in Spanish, all these serve to do, is ilustrate the importance of choosing the correct translator for your English to Spanish localisation needs.

Subtleties of translation

The skill needed to produce a great translation, rather than a merely good or competent translation is considerable.

I'm going to give you an example, using the a Spanish expression 'para gustos hay colores'. If this is given a literal word for word translation, it would be rendered as 'for tastes there are colours'.

It actually has the meaning 'one man's meat is another mans poision', or 'different strokes for different folks' or 'to each his own'.

A poor translator, Google translate;), would translate this literally.

A good translator would use one of the equivalent english sayings.

A great translator, in terms of website localisation, might look at the aim of the entire page to be localised, decide that the expression wasn't appropriate and explain this to you.

This kind of example, is the reason why I never use translators who profess knowledge of too many languages. I'm worried that subtelties will be missed.

Professional translation services

Surface languages does not offer any Spanish translation services, nor promote any translator or agency, which is why any advice offered through these pages can be impartial.

I've worked as an Spanish to English translator, which has given me some insight into the difficulties that arise, and has shown me how important it is to choose your translator with care.

The translator chosen, to localise your website from English to Spanish, is picking the words that will represent your company to the Spanish speaking world.

Producing a good translation, one that will sell your products or service, is a work of art, and the difficulty should not be underestimated.

Should I use an translation agency?

I tend not to.

The decision on whether or not to use a translation agency for your English to Spanish translation depends on your needs, personality and business.

I'm a small business owner, and have requirments which are likely to be different from your organisation or business.

I run Surface Languages, and have worked as a translator. As a consequence, I'm very 'hands on 'when it comes to having translations done for my websites. I want to have input. I almost always use individual translators and don't go through agencies. I generally obtain my translation services from translators using proz , and I explain how I go about looking for translators in this guide.

Cost is a factor.

I'm a price sensitive small business owner, and agencies always take a cut.

Most importantly, I want to know exactly who will be doing my translation, and I want to check their experience and credentials myself.

If an agency translates into 200 languages or offers translation into all major languages, who exactly is checking that the translators experience matches my requirements.

I'm sure that many high quality translators work for the bigger agencies, but how do I know one of these is working for me? My websites are personal, and I want to get the best possible localisation, and so I like to communicate directly with my translators. I don't want to go through a third party, who may impede communication.

There is a distinction between the global brands/translation agencies and smaller boutique groups of translators translating only into one or maybe two languages.

If I was using an translation agency, I would always pick specialists.

Any thoughts etc?