7 Myths About Spanish Translation for the United States

ASIST Translation Services Inc. has been translating to and from Spanish for the US market for over 25 years (as well as other Spanish-speaking countries around the world, of course!). Among the frequent topics of conversation with our translation clients are the many myths and misconceptions about the Spanish-speaking population in the United States. Accordingly, the Spanish translators at ASIST have helped compile a list of the “Magnificent Seven” myths about English-Spanish translations for the US market.
MYTH: Spanish spoken in the United States is “Spanglish.” It includes many English words and incorrect Spanish grammar.
FACT: This observation is true in relation to some of the colloquial or “street” Spanish one might hear in the United States, but it would never apply to a professional English-to-Spanish translation. Educated Spanish speakers surrounded by an English-speaking culture do indeed incorporate a higher proportion of loan words. In Spanish-speaking cultures around the world, borrowing words from other languages is more readily accepted when an exact (and brief!) equivalent doesn’t exist in Spanish. Even when translating to Spanish for other countries, it is not uncommon for our translators to include an original English term in parentheses if they are concerned that the Spanish version might otherwise be unfamiliar or ambiguous.
Despite all this, when ASIST creates formal Spanish translations for use in the United States, all conventional rules of Spanish grammar and punctuation apply and English words would never be gratuitously included in Spanish text. When “US Spanish” is designated as the target language variety, this in no way implies indiscriminate use of anglicisms, non-standard grammar or slang vocabulary that combines English and Spanish.
Among US Hispanics, in many cases their Spanish-language education may be interrupted or incomplete. This accounts for much of the “Spanglish” that Spanish speakers outside the United States always find so remarkable. Our professional Spanish translators are well aware of these issues, and work with ASIST clients to identify the appropriate educational level for the target audience.
MYTH: English-to-Spanish translations for the United States can be Mexican Spanish, because they represent the majority.
FACT: According to the US Census Bureau (2007 American Community Survey), only about 64% of the Hispanics across the United States (including many who speak little or no Spanish) identify themselves as being of Mexican origin. So, if you produce a translation that is specifically Mexican, without verifying its usability for other Hispanic groups, this potentially alienates over a third of your target audience!
These percentages vary widely from one US city to another. For example, census bureau data (ACS 2003) about Hispanic populations in metropolitan areas (without taking into account their native language, or Hispanic residents in their surrounding counties) tells us that:

  • In the city of San Francisco, less than half of Hispanics are of Mexican origin.
  • Within the city of Cleveland, 82% of Hispanics are of Puerto Rican origin.
  • In Philadelphia, 76% of Hispanics are of Puerto Rican origin.
  • Less than 5% of Hispanics in Boston are of Mexican origin (Puerto Ricans, at 27%, represent the largest Hispanic group in that city.)
  • Within the city of Columbus, Ohio, 59% of Hispanics are of Mexican origin.
  • In New York City, only 8% of Hispanics are of Mexican origin. (Over 30% of Hispanics in that city are of Puerto Rican origin, and slightly over 2% stated Cuban origin.)
  • However, there are many cities with large Mexican majorities among their Hispanic residents. For example, about 67% of Hispanic residents in Atlanta are of Mexican origin, 73% in Chicago, 76% in Denver, 81% in Las Vegas, 89% in Dallas, 90% in San Diego.

MYTH: Spanish is Spanish. There is only one correct version. The principal Spanish dictionary is that of the Real Academia Española; therefore, the Spanish spoken in Spain is also appropriate for all other Spanish speakers in the United States and Latin America.
FACT: Many varieties of Spanish exist around the world. The formal written and spoken versions used in various countries or regions are equally legitimate. Just as with English, the fact that a language may have originated in a one country, or has a greater number of speakers in another, doesn’t make any given variety “better” than others. Certain vocabulary and grammar used in Spain can be unfamiliar for many American speakers, and in spoken Spanish the accents from regions within Spain can be hard to follow. Each translation must be tuned for the target audience, and when there are significant differences, the knowledge and creativity of the translation team will address this issue.
MYTH: “Neutral” Spanish translations will be equally comprehensible to Spanish speakers from anywhere in the world.
FACT: There is no such thing as “neutral” Spanish! Well-known grammatical differences include the use of vosotros the second-person plural form of address in Spain, and the use of vos to mean “you” in many South American countries. (In some countries, vos is less formal than the form, and in others, it is more formal.)
Even more problematic, however, are the thousands of minor differences in vocabulary and usage from one country to another. Words used for even commonplace objects—especially, clothing, food, plants and household items—can vary widely. Experienced, professional  translators have interacted with many Spanish-speaking cultures, and are aware of these differences. This informs their decisions about which terms to use, and whether alternate terms need to be provided in order to produce the most inclusive translation possible. (Indeed, there are occasions when two separate translations are required.)
MYTH: If the Spanish translation is for Florida, it should be Cuban Spanish.
FACT: Even in Miami, census data (ACS 2003) tells us that only about 54% of the Hispanic population in that city is of Cuban origin. In Orlando, a mere 5% of Hispanics state Cuban origin, in Tampa about 35%, and about 13% in Jacksonville. It is interesting to note, however, that half of our nation’s Cuban-Americans reside within Miami-Dade County.
MYTH: In Spain they speak “Castilian,” and in the rest of the world they speak “Spanish” (español).
FACT: Another article in this blog explains how Castilian, Spanish, castellano and  español are all synonyms for the same language. To avoid confusion, the language spoken in Spain can be referred to as Peninsular Spanish or European Spanish. (Occasionally, Spanish speakers in the Americas use the word castellano to mean “good” Spanish; i.e., not regional or slang. But that is a colloquial expression, not a linguistically accurate description.)
MYTH: Because the metric system is used in Spanish-speaking cultures, all measurements should be converted to metric units.
FACT: Spanish speakers in the United States are immersed in a culture where “English” measurements are the norm. Accordingly in US Spanish translations, these units appear first—commonly followed by the metric conversion in parentheses). When ASIST creates Spanish translations for use in other countries, the order of measurement units is usually the opposite, because elsewhere in the world, the metric system is the norm. Exception to this rule are made when approximate metric conversions would be misleading or cause problems; for example, plumbing fittings or wrench sizes.
While we are on the subject of numbers, it should also be noted that, in Spanish, the use of commas and points to separate thousands and decimals is opposite from English. That is, they would write 1.000,01 instead of 1,000.01 as in English. This is the norm in the Spanish-speaking world, except in Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico… and the United States.
ASIST Translation Services, Inc. is a full-service interpreting and translation agency located in Columbus, Ohio. We provide translation, interpreting, proofreading, studio voice recording and media production, localization of interactive and Web content, and specialized language services to clients around the world.