Most people who embark on translations often worry that they may not use the appropriate Spanish dialect for their target audience.
The fact is that dozens of distinct varieties and dialects of the Spanish language are used around the world and even in the United States. To clarify, we’ll dive into some language studies.
Differences in the Spanish language reflect regional cultures.
In linguistics, variety is a broad term for a form of a language that can include dialects or registers (informal/formal ways of speaking). When it comes to Spanish, there are two major varieties: European Spanish, which is spoken in Spain, and Latin American Spanish, which is spoken in over a dozen countries throughout the Americas.
A dialect, on the other hand, is a specific variety of a language that is used by a particular group of people. Most dialects correspond to specific geographic areas and are distinguished by differences in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. Given the fact that Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world (and in the United States), it’s no surprise that dozens of different dialects are used on a daily basis. For example, within Latin American Spanish you’ll find Mexican Spanish, which is then further subdivided into distinct dialects depending on which area of the country you’re in. In some cases, a dialect may even be specific to an individual city!
Of course, as with any language, variations also exist among socio-economic classes. The spoken Spanish of a college-educated professional from Mexico City is as different from that of a gaucho (cattle rancher) in the Pampas of Argentina as is the English of a Wall Street investor from that of a Louisiana Bayou fisherman.
So then, how on earth are you to choose which variety of Spanish to use when you translate content for your organization? Think about the standard English used in books, magazines and website articles.
Use standard Spanish to defy vernacular differences and speak to all Spanish-speaking people.
American English and British English vary widely. You might be charmed by the differences in sound and in regional idioms, but you can still communicate quite easily.
Most Spanish-speaking people can understand each other even with the different Spanish variations. And when it comes to formal language, most Latin Americans use a neutral or standard Spanish. Professional translators also know to use standard Spanish, a form of the language that is intended to be as neutral as possible in order to be understood throughout the Spanish-speaking world. For historical reasons, it primarily draws from Castilian Spanish, the standard form used in Spain, and is overseen by the Real Academia Española (REA), an organization tasked with promoting linguistic unity so that all Spanish speakers around the world can understand each other. Using standard Spanish will also save you from some embarrassing situations in which certain words have offensive meanings in select regions.
For the best and most relevant translations, always know and respect linguistic and cultural differences.
If you’re trying to get your message across to a wide Spanish-speaking audience, standard Spanish should be your variety of choice. This is particularly true in the United States, where it will help you connect with immigrants and their descendants from all over the Spanish-speaking world instead of just those from a single country. Of course, if your target community is from a certain region of Mexico or Puerto Rico, you should point that out to your translation provider.
More important than regional differences, however, are educational differences that might make a complicated text in English more difficult for someone with a lower literacy level to understand. Make sure that your target audience can read well in Spanish or that the translation reflects a reading level that is appropriate for them. You’ll need to think about how they best consume information. In some cases, a voice-recorded message or a video might be more effective than a traditional written translation.
Beyond dialects, consider how you can really reach the hearts and minds of the immigrant community you want to engage. Just like with any good marketing material, content is more persuasive when it has the consumer or buyer in mind. If your target audience is a specific community, the best translations will reflect the idiomatic characteristics of that population and show a respect for cultural differences. But to reach a broad Spanish-speaking audience effectively, rely on standard Spanish to give your messages authenticity.
—Patricia V. Rivera, founder of Hook PR Group, has been managing translation projects since launching a bilingual marketing agency in 2003. Erica Huttner contributed to this article. She is a freelance translator and writer of The Lingua File, a language blog.