Wait… but which Spanish?

So, you have decided you want to translate your content into Spanish. But a Spanish translation, as with many other languages that are spoken in different countries and regions, can be a very different thing depending on what your needs are.

This is a language that has around 400 million native speakers. All these Hispanophones can sound really different, while written language is more uniform throughout the regions.

And so we have this hypothetical thing called “Universal Spanish” or “Neutral Spanish”. That’s fair, we all share the same core vocabulary, the same grammar and spelling rules (for the most part) so there is common ground for a universal language. If you want to start breaking it down, you can go:

  • Peninsular Spanish (also called Castilian or European), the one that’s spoken in Spain, where only less than 12% of Spanish speakers live, also with many dialects and regional differences.

  • Latin-American Spanish, which encompasses almost 20 different countries, each of them with its own dialects. And to make things more complex, linguistic borders don’t always coincide with geographical borders.

The main differences within these two main variants lie in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. This article outlines some good examples.

But here’s the thing about all these “umbrella” dialects, in real life no one really speaks like that. These are just categories that bring you closer to your translation goals.

Check out the many many different ways to say something as simple as “pen” in each different country, or have a listen at a few different Latin-America Spanish accents.

If you’re into linguistics and history, this terrific article by Guillermo Cabanellas de las Cuevas sums up this matter pretty well. Basically Spanish has a really strong linguistic unity that allows us to understand each other even if we speak using a few different terms. We don’t need to “switch” to “universal Spanish” when we meet someone from another country so they can follow what we’re saying.

But for practical purposes, this construct called “Universal Spanish” can be achieved, and most experienced translators in Latin America are familiar with translating into this standard variant of ES-LA, es-419, LATAM Spanish, or however you want to call it. But the price of that “universality” is that you inevitably come up with a product that won’t sound very natural to anyone.

In many cases, this isn’t really a problem. If you want to translate an instruction manual for your new product then the language typically used is rather neutral and a translator from pretty much any Spanish-speaking country will do an amazing job for you. People will understand how your product is meant to be used, we all win!

If you’re translating business letters that need to use a super formal tone, then that will already sound very different to how people actually speak, and one of these constructed variants of Spanish will fit just right.

The Plot Thickens

But what happens is you want to localize your website’s copy to reach new countries? Or your new ad campaign that a team of creatives worked so hard to make? Here’s when it gets tricky, the more creative you get, the more you want to really speak to your audience. If you speak to that audience in that neutral language they don’t really feel as their own, then they may lose interest.

This brings us to one of the most important things to consider when you are thinking about translating content into Spanish: informal content calls for a more local translation. 

This becomes very important when it comes to Argentina, where I’m a native from. Rioplatense Spanish, which also includes Uruguay, carries many differences in pronunciation, and its strong Italian influence also has affected the vocabulary quite a bit. But my dialect also has the most grammatical differences compared to the rest of the Latin-American region. We have a different second-person singular pronoun (vos instead of ), which in turn affects verb conjugations, this is called voseo and it’s the main difference of this dialect.

How to Choose

To help you figure out what variant of Spanish you want your content translated into, you need to ask yourself a few questions:

  • What’s the main market I want to reach?
    If you’re looking to seduce consumers in Spain, then go Peninsular. If you simply want to reach all Spanish speakers, then a Latin-American translator would be better prepared to make your translation more “universal”.

  • What’s the general tone of my content?
    If you’re trying to convey a conversational tone, then you want to get as local as possible.

  • What’s my budget?
    If you want to localize your content to many Spanish-speaking countries, you’ll need translators from each one of them to make the necessary adaptations to appeal to each market.

The reality is that Spanish speakers are used to hearing different terms and expressions that are not the ones that they’d naturally choose. Our globalized world operates on these universalized versions of languages. And it’s because of this, that we really like it when a brand talks to us like a friend would talk to us, really in the same language.

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