Why Spanish Translations
Are So Controversial

This photo shows a serious man ready to discuss the Spanish language. In the mood for a lively debate? Take two or five or a dozen native Spanish speakers and ask them to review the same English-to-Spanish translation. Stand back, and let the war of words begin!

After completing thousands of English-to-Spanish projects, we’ve pinpointed the four catalysts for controversy.

A linguistic imperative

First, linguistic debates are an essential part of the Spanish culture. Every Spanish speaking country in the world (including the United States) participates, to different degrees, in the deliberations of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language.

Founded in 1713, the Academy exists to standardize the Spanish language and determine which words should be added to the next official Diccionario de la Lengua Española. Academy members include prominent scholars, authors, poets, journalists, and professors who meet in Madrid. The press covers their meetings and reports their decisions throughout the Spanish speaking world.

In addition, each Spanish-speaking country (including the United States) is home to a chapter of the Royal Academy that debates linguistic issues.

In fact, several years ago the U.S. Treasury Department had to convene a panel of U.S. and Latin American lawyers to agree on Spanish words and phrases to be used by the Internal Revenue Service. The resulting glossary, IRS Publication No. 850, runs 35 three-column, single-spaced pages.

The role of the translator

A second source of controversy is the role of the translator. A Spanish speaker may say a document is “not conversational” or not written in the “contemporary spoken vernacular” or that it’s “too literal.”

They may be right! What they are really saying, though, is that the original English is not conversational or written in the contemporary vernacular.

However, by training and by law, professional certified translators must maintain the original document’s “register,” or level of language. (These levels include pedantic, formal, neutral, casual, and vulgar.)

If the English document is written in a serious business tone, the translation must reflect a serious business

tone. Translators cannot create a “conversational” translation out of thin air. Moreover, translators cannot rewrite, simplify, or lower the reading level. If a client wants a Spanish document at a lower reading level, they must first create an English document with a lower reading level, and then have it translated.

When the English ain’t good

Another spark for controversy is a disagreement with the original English text. In addition to maintaining register, the quality of a Spanish translation is measured by the degree to which it accurately conveys the content from one language to another. If the reviewer is not happy with the message in the original English content, he or she will not be happy with the translation.

For example, one of our client’s reviewers insisted on changing “claims professionals,” which was properly translated in Spanish, to “customer service department,” which was neither what the original author intended nor correct. The result? We could not certify that the translation was correct!

When wrong sounds right

The final cause of controversy is the presence of  “false cognates,” or words that appear to be the same or similar in both languages. False cognates number in the hundreds for English/Spanish translations, and some reviewers introduce these errors in their edits of translations, or question the translators’ work because they do not recognize false cognates.

Imagine a translator working on a sales contract for a service firm. At the bottom, the consumer is asked to read (or “review”) the document before signing it. The correct Spanish verb is “revisar,” but a reviewer may wrongly believe that’s the word for “revise.” Had the document requested revisions from the customer, “corregir” or “modificar” would have been among the translator’s first choice.

Unchecked, false cognates can lead to embarrassing miscommunication. For instance, a novice Spanish speaker might assume the verb “excitar” would be appropriate in a sentence such as “We are excited about the new product line.” However, “excitar” means “sexually aroused” in Spanish!

Understanding the four causes of controversy lets Inline anticipate and minimize problems with English-to-Spanish translations. Clients appreciate our diligence.

We know the language, and we look forward to learning more about your business and target audience with every project.

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