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
- Follow grammar rules from dictionaries such as Real Academia Española, Larousse, María Moliner, etc. to guarantee accuracy and precision.
- 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 3.220.000.000 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:
- Spanish Variations: Spain vs. Latin America
- Spanish Website Translation Basics
- Why You Need a Localized Website for the U.S. Hispanic Market
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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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Carolina I. Pérez - Localization Project Manager
Carolina is a native Spanish speaker and certified English-Spanish/Spanish-English translator with a degree in Sworn, Literary, Technical, and Scientific Translation. She currently is a project manager handling documentation, software and website globalization projects for an array of clients including retailers, hotel/hospitality, healthcare and ad agencies.