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Language fact: Universal Spanish

Let them read universal Spanish!Spanish is the most translated language in the US. While Spanish is one of the easier languages to learn, technical texts are often considered difficult to translate into Spanish. One of the main reasons given is that there is no single variety of Spanish. There are, in fact, major differences between the Spanish of Spain and, say, South America.

But what are pharmaceutical and medical device companies to do? Do you need to provide multiple Spanish translations if you wish to market services to the general Hispanic population in the US or to sell your products to Spanish speakers in both South America and Spain? The experts will tell you that you must write specifically in the Spanish of your target audience. In other words, only Mexican Spanish will do for Mexicans.

The experts are wrong.

First, a bit of background. Spanish and English are neck-and-neck for the title of third most spoken language in the world. As of 2005, each had more than 300 million native speakers. Both are behind Hindi (around 360 million speakers) and far, far behind Chinese with around 1 billion million speakers (source: Wikipedia).

But which Spanish are they talking about? As with other widely spoken languages, regional and local usage develops over the course of time, resulting in a veritable Tower of Babel of Spanish.

In the U.S., more than one-in-five residents of Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas speak Spanish at home. The Hispanic population in and around Miami tends to be of Latin American or Caribbean ancestry. In contrast, the Spanish-speaking population in Dallas is predominantly of Mexican origin.

This kind of regionalism (some worriers would say balkanization) makes it difficult to target each group of Spanish speakers in "their" dialect. In Miami, if you want to reach Cuban-Americans, how do you avoid that this text also reaches (and potentially offends) people of Central American origin?

The debate over Spanish dialects is easy to understand when compared to the differences in UK English and US English. Most of us find the small differences in meaning and pronunciation charming. But as with Spanish dialects, there are also some substantial differences in usage and vocabulary of the English language. (For a look at some of the difference, refer to the American-British / British-American dictionaries at TravelFurther.net.)

Despite these differences, we can communicate quite effectively across the big pond. Most Americans quickly adjust when they hear a Brit describe an activity of a "fortnight" ago. More importantly, Americans interpret uncustomary phrases and expressions in the context given.

In fact, it all comes down to context. It is generally taken for granted that in any language, medical texts use terminology that is quite different from, say, financial texts. Likewise, a guide for janitorial staff uses a style, layout, and terminology that might differ from one for nuclear engineers. We expect readers to have a certain level of familiarity with the topic discussed. The more expertise we assume on the part of the reader, the more specialized the language will become.

For these difficult linguistic situations, the role of the Spanish translator is twofold. The translator must have both expertise in the subject being written about, and knowledge of the document's intended audience. With those two pieces of information, the skilled translator can indeed author a Spanish text that is clear and unambiguous to an educated reader from any Spanish-speaking country.

Companies that use a universal Spanish do so for practical reasons. It is often not possible to produce multiple Spanish versions of the same document and at the same time, reduce time to market and live within ever-shrinking budgets.

The following five guidelines will help you decide to produce universal Spanish or market-specific materials:

1. Distinguish between marketing communication and technical documentation
To save time and money, technical documentation should be written in a universal Spanish. Marketing documents, on the other hand, should be localized for a specific market. Ads, commercials, brochures, and collateral pieces must be copy-edited by local talent.

2. Accept linguistic differences
There will always be people who point out that certain words are slang terms in a country. While these instances should be investigated to avoid any offense to your local users, most of these claims are as bogus as the old fable that the Chevy Nova failed in South America because "no va" literally means "doesn't go" in Spanish.

3. Speak to your audience
As noted above, translators need to know who will read the Spanish documents. This way, linguists are able to match the words they use to the abilities of the end-user. Don't use technical jargon when lay persons will read the document.

4. Don't get too caught up in the details
Proponents of country-specific Spanish documentation often cite differing conventions for depicting times, numbers, and the like. For example, while a Mexican might write a check for $3,290.67, a Spaniard would write the same amount as $3.290,67. Insisting on a separate manual to account for differences like this example is rather like missing the forest for the trees. While a notation might be unconventional, it surely would not result in any confusion.

5. Inform users of your approach
Some companies, like Microsoft, preface Spanish manuals with a note that explains to the user that the document was written in universal Spanish that all of their customers could understand. This heads off criticism at the pass and alerts readers to the possibility for uncustomary terms.

Not everybody will be convinced that a universal Spanish is feasible or appropriate. However, translators need to adapt to the business realities of their customers. It is no longer feasible, or necessary, to write specifically in the Spanish of your Spanish target audience.

Instead, provide context and let them read universal Spanish!

Why do leading medical device and pharmaceutical companies entrust their Spanish medical translations to ForeignExchange Translations? Our process allows for known translation quality in the shortest amount of time. Ask us how!


  1. Anonymous said...
    I do agree with some of the points stated out on your article, but be careful with technical terms. The influence of English language is far more visible for translations coming from SA countries (false friends, literal translations and slipping English words). I can't say those translations are not acceptable, but many, many (MD, technicians) readers would detect and reject that "English flavour".
    Thanks for your interesting blog
    Brian Barker said...
    As far as learning another language is concerned, can I put in a word for Esperanto?

    I suggest not only because it has become a living language, but because it has great propaedeutic values as well. Esperanto helps language learning!

    You can check this out at http://www.lernu.net
    Anonymous said...
    I completely agree with you. I think that the "universal Spanish" you write about is simply correct Spanish, devoid of local uses.
    I just finished translating a website where I was asked to translate my language --Mexican-- to be used along Argentinean, I had to tell my customer that both Mexicans and Argentineans speak Spanish. In fact I went through the "Argentinean" translation, and it was almost identical to mine!
    Anonymous said...
    I don't really agree with the person that commented on the Mex-Arg venture but I do agree with the person that commented on the technical text. This is why; though one can very well sail through the translation, you have to be very weary of your lexical choices at all times. Years ago a group of Arg translators had to translate the User's Manual to assemble the engines for lorries of a famous make. The audience was Mexican and the results were quite interesting; as the differences in the terminology and the style was so different (there was no final glossary or style guide) we were asked to re-write our translatios almost completely. In IT this is more acceptable, though I still cannot get my head around the anal golden rules of some mega sw providers who insist in producing unintelligible sw strings for the sake of consistency and "neutrality". But if you’re trying to sell linguistic services to companies that offer cruises to the Maldives, be very careful... Most Spanish speakers would not lose any sleep over "alberca", "piscina", "pileta" or "natatorio" used to describe the swimming-pool facilities in a hotel, but it could be a bit off-putting and the difference stops being cute when you see that a terms of different variants are thrown together in the same paragraph. I am no expert in medical translations, but in the tourism, fashion and other industries the solution is adaptation. It is not as cost-effective as the awkward Latin American/Mid-Atlantic/Neutral Spanish but it is still cheaper than translating the same text for Chile, Mexico and Ecuador simultaneously.
    Karen said...

    I have been regularly reading your posts, so just thought even I could contribute some information to this blog. Have a look at www.translationartwork.com , its so much fun to see how people come up with different concepts.
    Falcon_Safaris said...
    I would have to say that I agree in that for medical terms there is one type of Spanish across the borders. Otherwise, doctors around the world would not be able to understand each other.

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