What is Neutral Spanish?

June 17, 2011

Many articles or blogs on language translation recommend localizing text to be as specific as possible for your locale. The Spanish language (possibly the world's third most widely spoken language) is often an exception, due to the broad audience of Spanish speakers spread over several countries and continents.

Most customers find that they have neither the budget nor the bandwidth to localize their content for each Spanish locale. It is very common for clients to have their translation company or translation agency translate source language content into what is commonly referred to as "neutral" Spanish. This type of Spanish is sometimes also referred to as "universal" or "standard" Spanish.

Is it a dialect? Is it a language? Is it a standard?

In my opinion, neutral Spanish is not a language. But what is it then? Neutral Spanish is an attempt made by linguists or translators to select terms that the majority of Spanish speakers will understand, by avoiding the use of local terminology and the invention of non-existent words.

Some background on neutral Spanish

*While there is not really any official Academic or pan-government institution that is effectively defining or enforcing any type of "universal" Spanish, there are forces which have influenced what has come to be accepted as this form of the Spanish language. (Note: the Real Academia Española has attempted to fulfill this mission, but has mainly focused on maintaining the integrity of Castilian Spanish.) Spanish language television broadcasts, by necessity, must use "toned down" Spanish in order for shows to be understood by as wide of a Latin American audience as possible. Although style guides are used, from habit, Spanish-speaking journalists and TV guest use as few country-specific idioms and terms as possible.

Some blogs on this topic indicate that recent research shows that analysis of Spanish language broadcast media revealed that fewer than 3% of terms used were country specific.

Although this influence gives some starting point for neutral Spanish, there are still many decisions to be made by your translation company's Spanish language translation team. Linguists must still select the best term possible that is both widely understood by Spanish-speakers in many countries, and which will also not be perceived as offensive in some locales.

Steps to follow for neutral Spanish translation

A translation company should ask its client who his target audience is and where it is located. Is his target audience from Spain, Central America, South America? Is the target audience Spanish speakers in the USA? Answering this question will determine the number of locales, and thus possible variations in Spanish for target audiences for the translation project.

Spanish, like any other widely spoken language, is not standard. Each country, region or community where Spanish is spoken has its own words, grammatical constructions and linguistic differences. For example, "swimming pool" is "pileta" in Argentina, "piscina" in Uruguay and "alberca" in Mexico.

It is also important to take into account that what can be considered polite or neutral in one variant of Spanish may be perceived as an insult in another. For example, the verb "coger" in Spain means "to grab" but, in Argentina or Uruguay, it is a slang word meaning "to have sex."

If the client doesn't have a specific target audience, the client's translation agency needs to:

  • Select terminology
  • Follow linguistic rules (or syntax)
  • Choose between two or more words

Terminology selection for neutral Spanish

  • Resolve any vocabulary conflict carefully, choosing the most appropriate terminology, without coining new words and avoiding certain expressions, idioms, etc. that are only used in certain countries.
  • Translate precisely and accurately, without being offensive and looking for the words most likely to be understood by all Spanish speakers. If necessary or applicable, a footnote may be added explaining the meaning of the word.
  • Generally, technical text is more neutral and many terms are shared by Spanish speakers worldwide. For example, "tomografía computada" (computerized tomography) will be understood by Spanish speaking professionals everywhere. Of course, there are exceptions. For example, "computer" is "computadora" in Latin America and "ordenador" in Spain. In this case, to keep the translation neutral, I recommend the use of "equipo" or "equipo informático", a neutral word understood by all Spanish speakers. Avoid the use of "computadora" or "ordenador."

Linguistic rules for neutral Spanish

  1. Follow grammar rules from dictionaries such as Real Academia Española, Larousse, María Moliner, etc. to guarantee accuracy and precision.
  2. For technical translations, use dictionaries such as Seco and Sousa.

Choosing between two or more words in neutral Spanish

*It is very common to find two or more words for the same object. For instance, "car" may be translated as "automóvil", "coche" or "carro".

What should we do if we are working on a translation project that includes the term "car" and our target audience is all the Spanish speaking population of the world? We can only select one word for "car" and our choices are: "automóvil", "coche" and "carro". Which word is more "neutral"? Which term will make our translation more "universal"? I would select "automóvil". But how do I know this is the correct choice?

A search in Google (google.es) shows the following results:

  • "Automóvil" or "auto" (its abbreviated form) gets hits.
  • "Coche" gets 123.000.000 hits.
  • "Carro" gets 183.000.000 hits, including some hits where the meaning is "cart" (heavy open wagon usually having two wheels and drawn by an animal).

*By no means am I suggesting that selection of "neutral" terms should be based solely a Google search! The final decision should also be based on the target audience and, if the localized product is intended for a diverse Spanish speaking community, careful research. A detailed assessment should also be made to obtain the most "neutral" Spanish possible.

According to my experience, there is still no approved dictionary for "Neutral or Universal Spanish." As more and more content is translated in neutral Spanish, over time, some sense of "standards" will emerge.

Further resources on Spanish translation and localization

You may find two of our previous blogs on Spanish translation challenges to be of interest:

Globalization Partners International has created a more extensive overview of website globalization for U.S. Hispanic consumers in two white papers: Website Globalization and E-Business U.S. Hispanic Market and Website Globalization and E-Business U.S. Hispanic Market - In Depth are available in PDF format via a free download.

You may contact GPI at info@globalizationpartners.com or at (US toll-fee) 866-272-5874 with your specific questions about the Spanish translation and your project goals. You may also request a complimentary Spanish translation quote for your project as well.

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Language, Spanish, neutral Spanish, translation, terminology

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  • Mario ChávezOn Jun 20, Mario Chávez said:
    Ornella, I agree on most points, except for the use of "equipo informático" instead of "computadora" or "ordenador". I could never use "equipo informático" or "sistema informático" for U.S. Latinos who speak and read Spanish, because they would feel confused. For translations targeting Spain, it's always "ordenador"...unless one is an in-house Spanish translator for a software company with strict rules and word choices. During my time at Intel, we had to use "sistema" or "equipo" instead of "computadora". So, you are partially right.

    One of the rules of thumb for technical documentation and software translation is precision. The words we choose should convey the original meanings with clarity and without explanations or descriptions (that would be periphrasis, not translation).

    I would also like to say, in the most amiable and friendly way, that there is a slight prescriptive tone in some of your recommendations. We translators don't make rules. We may offer suggestions, recommendations, guidelines and practical rules of thumb, but rules? Especially in the realm of 'neutral Spanish', which generates an ongoing debate, there are no rules. You said it yourself, there are no standards.

    I also disagree with your statement "For technical translations, use dictionaries such as Seco and Sousa". You have incorrect information. First of all, Manuel Seco writes specialized monolingual dictionaries, such as the Diccionario de dudas, not technical ones. Second, José Martínez de Sousa does something similar. They are both seasoned and consummated lexicographers, but they only write monolingual dictionaries. I have a few of them myself.

    I personally shun the practice of using search engines to establish usage, let alone identifying a Spanish variant. You have probably encountered hundreds of Google pages in Spanish that are poorly written or translated. Even pages created by universities, doctors and engineers.

    Thanks for the opportunity to offer my two cents.
  • Yves ChaixOn Jun 21, Yves Chaix said:
    I have little to contribute to this discussion since I am not a professional translator from English to Spanish and, on top of that, I am French. Can you think of a worse combination!?
    My only claim of propriety to this discussion, which I find extremely opportune, is that I decided on my own will to translate one of Thomas Erl´s book to Spanish, the SOA:Principles of Software Design, then the soaprinciples.com site, the SOA Manifesto and have just finished dabbling with the SOA Glossary. So, I am fully aware of all the issues mentionned by both of you but have had to fence for my own solutions.
    One of them has been peer-review, which worked well in some cases, when the reviewers are motivated and do not expect fees, in other cases RAE has been a good source but they have had to point out that they are not in the business of translations, and also WordReference Forums and other pages have helped. I have only had some limited, empiric, notions of the issue involved and was unaware of the concept of "Neutral" Spanish, although it makes perfect sense.
    Contrary to Mario´s opinion about rules, I feel that if self-observed rules are sound and logical, and make sense, then the more widely they are used, the more possibility they have to become a standard, when there is nothing else? Just a gut feeling!
    The second issue is about (not) coining new words. I find this difficult to accept. Most IT concepts come from English speaking countries and if the concept is new, then it probably will need a new word for it, unless you agree to the RAE recommendation of using the original word in italic. This is what I eventually decided to do for namespace, since the original word itself does not transmit its own meaning. But even RAE accepted Descubribilidad (which is not in my dictionnary) for discoverability, but did not buy Compuestabilidad, for composability. Imagine using throughout a book "capacidad de formar compuestos" as they suggested... What about "overarching" or even something as simple apparently as "solution logic" (resolvente y resolutiva were both rejected)? How do you solve that? I am fully against hispanizing an english word, which is most of the time the easy, lazy solution, but if it is a new word?

    Anyway, you seem to be both quite knowdledgeable in the field of translation to spanish of IT documents, and I will be following you both very closely as a reference.

    Regards from an amateur.
  • OrnellaOn Jun 21, Ornella said:
    Mario, thank you for your reply and extensive feedback. My examples are general, and would be modified based on the specific target countries relevant to an actual project. Some of our clients use a form of neutral Spanish for Latin American countries and do a separate translation for Spain, which eliminates one of the conflicts that you identified.

    We also appreciate your feedback on the dictionaries. We are glad that you are enjoying the blogs.

  • OrnellaOn Jun 21, Ornella said:
    Yves, thank you very much for your feedback. I agree with you that, in the case of new concepts, we will probably need new words for them. In the specific case of "solution logic", the obvious translation is "lógica de la solución", but I find it awkward. I have used "lógica resolutiva" several times.

    Please, feel free to follow me and read GPI's blogs (http://blog.globalizationpartners.com/) for reference and updated information.

  • Yves ChaixOn Jun 21, Yves Chaix said:
    Ornella: I know your blog is not intended to address individual translation issues, so I will not pursue that line of action. However, I should tell you that if I did use it in all my translations, somebody pointed out to me that "Lógica resolutiva" is rather the logic by which you design a solution, not the logic of the solution itself. Had to admit I was licked. It sounds too logical. Unless you can convince me of the contrary.

    And then I found "Lógica resolvente" even more appropriate ("que resuelve"), until the RAE told be that, no, it was not used anymore. (Now, this is a doubtful argument since it sounds to me that it would be better to re-habilitate an existing expression rather than use an awkward one, line "Logica de la solución").

    So there you are with two examples that seem typical of translating technological terms. How does this tie to your blog?

    Well, a) maybe the technologies and science domains do not really need localization, or that the needs for localization are much less and could be systematized. Could that be an acceptable conclusion? (Although, I do agree that ordenador/computadora are relevant locale issues), b) we should foster the creation of new words over the hispanization of english ones. The French have created a whole vocabulary for IT or sometimes used existing expressions that are almost always well suited and are not english words frenchized (this is why after living so long in Nicaragua,I don´t understand french IT technology) and c) if nobody else does it, why not create a forum for this very purpose?

    What do you say?
  • Steven MarzuolaOn Jun 22, Steven Marzuola said:
    A few responses. First, my work experience is more technical and thus more "neutral" than some fields. An oilfield service company that operates in Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia does not want to prepare three different versions of its operating manual. One reason is the expense, and two is that technicians from one country might be called on to work in another.

    Second, bless the RAE but I would never use them as a final arbiter of whether or not to use a given word.

    Third, I find that there are at least two different audiences for Spanish technical content. There are people who are already quite familiar with technical English and who do NOT want to see translations of certain terms. For example, in the oilfield, "liner", "jumper", and "riser" have specific meanings and there is no consensus on the best or most neutral Spanish translation.

    On the other hand, sometimes we're writing for novices, government employees, or other people with less training. That audience needs and appreciates some explanation in Spanish of the specialized terms, even if they are not defined in the source text and regardless of how they are translated or if they are left in English.

    With experience, a translator may come to realize which audience he/she should be writing for. Most of the time an agency might not know, but it's worth involving them in the discussion to create the best document for the occasion.

    Fourth, I don't write for a technical audience in US Spanish. Those readers either work in English, or use the English terms (or Hispanicized versions). For example: "paipa" for pipe, "rencha" for wrench, "carpeta" for carpet or rug, etc. A whole 'nother challenge.

    Finally: Cuban-American TV personality Cristina Saralegui was being interviewed about her talk show, and she commented that she had learned to keep people on her staff from several different countries. She said, it seems that almost any common or local name for a fruit or vegetable in one country can be used as a nickname for a part of one's anatomy in another.
  • OrnellaOn Jun 22, Ornella said:
    Steven, thank you for your comments and highly useful observations. Yes, the need for technical terms can vary from industry to industry and also is dependent on location of the target users. My blog was intended to address neutral Spanish in a very general context, from marketing materials to technical. Clearly, we will need to share more blogs on this topic.