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There Are 26 Spanish-Speaking Countries: What Do I Do?

Posted by Lee Densmer on Thu, May 09, 2013 @ 11:09 AM

100% EspanolThere are 26 Spanish-speaking countries in the world comprising 469 million speakers. There is a distinct version of Spanish to match each locale; the cultures are not homogenous and the Spanish spoken in each place has marked differences as well.

No matter where Spanish-speaking users come from, companies need to make sure that their products are understandable and that no legal issues might arise for using a non-neutral term or concept.

As a translation company, we are often asked about the differences in these dialects of Spanish, and when to use one over the other. Most often, we are asked for advice on how to choose a Spanish that is 'good' for all Spanish-speaking countries, so as to incur the cost of translation only one time.

The Latin American Market

Of the more than 469 million people who speak Spanish as their mother tongue, more than 418 million, or 90%, are in Latin America and the United States. Latin American Spanish speakers have a lot of clout in the market.

Yet, while the Spanish market's language needs would be ideally addressed at an individual level, there are situations where schedule and budget impediments mean that localizing for each country is impossible. No matter where Spanish-speaking users come from, companies need to make sure that their products are understandable and that no legal issues might arise for using a non-neutral term or concept.

Come On, Are They That Different?

It is easily overwhelming if an enterprise must entertain the translation of 26 versions of Spanish when looking at new markets. Most translation agencies do provide translation in multiple Spanish dialects, but not all 26. Most agencies regularly provide the 8 or so from the countries with the biggest ROI, such as Argentina, Chile, Mexico, US, Puerto Rico, Spain, Uruguay.

The difference in all these dialects of Spanish is mainly lexical: the terminology varies. For instance, the term "computer" can be translated as "computadora", "computador" or "ordenador" depending on the country or region in which that term is used. (In order to avoid this, some companies decided to use "equipo".)

The grammar, syntax, and punctuation vary much less (if at all). However, in marketing materials the distinction in terminology between one dialect of Spanish and another is very important, since marketing material is creative, culture-based, targeted communication. In marcomm, concepts, terminology, idioms can all vary considerably.

If You Have to Choose One...

…there is hope. Latin American Spanish – that spoken in the entire Spanish speaking world outside of Spain - can be considered a neutral Spanish, which is appropriate and understandable for most speakers. It is especially applicable for IT related content. IT terminology has spread easily and quickly and is consistently used in Latin America; most IT users know them.

But what is 'neutral'? The term does not refer to any specific dialect of the language, rather it refers to the process of finding terms or phrases that would be understood or best suited to a multinational target audience.

Terms chosen would not be geographically or regionally specific, and they would not have variation in meaning between locales. This language version avoids localisms. (I would add my opinion that Latin American Spanish isn't really a language, but a solid and much needed attempt to translate for many markets through avoiding the use of local terminology.)

When the terminology is carefully handled as I've described, then Latin American Spanish can be considered a condensed variety, representing all Latin American countries. Most of the companies we work with use this localization strategy to appropriately reach Spanish speaking countries outside of Spain by using Latin American Spanish. 

How Can You Ignore Spain Spanish, US Spanish and Mexican Spanish?

Well, technically you can't and shouldn't, but budget always comes into play. 

Spain Spanish is different. The main thing that separates Spain's dialect from the others is that Spaniards do not prefer to borrow terms. This may be because that dialect is the original Spanish, not the colonial one, and there is pride in keeping it pure. Language evolution is less prevalent in Spain.

Spain Spanish also maintains traditional grammatical structures. There is a Spanish governing body, called the Real Academia Española, who is responsible to 'clean, set, and cast splendour' on the Spanish language. (I love it, so regal). This Spanish is considered the correct, traditional, literary and most pure variety of Spanish.

If you choose to localize into only Spanish from Spain for all audiences, nothing would sound offensive or be confusing to Latin Americans. Most people will understand. However, Spain Spanish will sound awkward to other Spanish speakers because 'old-school' (or some would argue, obsolete) terms may be used. On the flip side, it would be obvious to a Spaniard that material translated into Latin American Spanish was not written for him/her.

You can't win here. If you have the money, I'd suggest Spain Spanish and Latin American Spanish – especially for marketing material. 

Next, Mexican Spanish is the dialect spoken in Mexico. Mexican Spanish is its own dialect, but that dialect can be safely covered by using Latin American Spanish because it is very similar to the other dialects residing in Latin America.

U.S. Spanish is sometimes thought to be the same as Mexican Spanish but it is not. It is logical that when moving closer to the US border, the Spanish would become more 'diluted' with English terms and concepts; these dialects blend at the border.

In both border Spanish and U.S. Spanish you will notice significant English influence, such as blending Spanish and English terms, borrowing words exactly (calques), or modifying English words with Spanish grammatical rules. Moving north from Mexico City you will also hear more code-switching which is the mixed use of both languages, the subconscious flip-flop that is natural to completely bilingual Mexican Americans. 

Please Just Tell Us What to Do

  1. If you don't have any content yet, consider going 'neutral', which means choosing Latin American Spanish. It goes without saying that translating to only one variation will always be your least expensive option.
  2. If you want to specialize further, then adapt your existing Latin American content for the Spain or Mexican markets.
  3. If you have decided to localize for a number of specific Spanish markets, then use assets to guide the work. Glossary work up front is important, whether you are doing an adaptation or a translation from scratch.
  4. Because of the cost implications and because of the nature of the material (not marketing) we do not recommend localizing at a country level.

If you are a linguist, which version of Spanish do you specialize in? What do most of your clients ask for?

Thanks to my colleague Lorena Prieto for the market data. She is a linguistic services manager, responsible for quality, style guides, terminology and overall language approach. 

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Topics: Localization Insider