No widely spoken language is spoken the same everywhere, US and UK English, French and, to a larger extent, Spanish. Each region it is spoken in adds their own flavour to it, changing accents, meanings of words and grammatical constructions.
This results is what may sometimes seem like a completely new language. Volado – Spanish past perfect of fly. Are you sure? In Columbia it means angry, in El Salvador it is an object. So how do we request a translation and ensure the document will be easily read by Spanish speakers from so many different parts of the world?
There is no correct or better Spanish; we simply try to use a Spanish which is comprehensible to all, despite what is spoken in a particular region day to day. Man rather than lad, guy, dude or bro. This concept of a standard Spanish variation has not surprisingly been named “Neutral Spanish”.
I have used the word simply, but unfortunately it is not all that simple. Finding a neutral ground in anything takes time, research and sacrifice. Most difficult of all in this case, is the impossibility of forming certain grammatical structures in a neutral way.
What’s so different between Latin American and European Spanish?
The most known example of this is the singular “you” which, in Spain, is translated to “tu”, but in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Central American countries, it translates to “vos”, while some Colombians tend to use the formal alternative “usted”. The problem here is that all three pronouns require different verb conjugations and that at least one of the three versions will always sound a bit awkward in any given Spanish speaking country.
Also keep in mind that when using it, it is necessary to avoid slang, unexplained abbreviations and issues that are specific to a region. This can make it seem more technical and formal or impersonal, but depending on the text, it is usually how we want it anyway, to ensure it can reach a wide variety of audiences from different regions.
The concept does not only refer to written Spanish, in fact, many of the differences between Spanish variants are in pronunciation and not in the text itself.
The common ground – Neutral Spanish
Neutral Spanish has found a way to tackle this problem. The two most popular Latin American television channels in the US are Telemundo and Univision. Telemundo has coached their telenovela (literally TV novels) – soap opera – stars in speaking with Neutral Spanish accents. The accent is something akin to the Mexican accent; it is between the slow murmur of Central America, the elongated vowel sounds of Argentina and the fast, terse accent of Columbia.
Univision, its competitor, has also coached their actors to speak in a similar accent, but it does not oblige them to so, as they are in Telemundo. Maybe it should think about it – Telemundo has 80% of the Latin American TV audience. The key here is inclusion. There are few people who feel left out because they don’t understand certain jokes or expressions that are used in the Telenovela, and this is also the key to a successful Spanish translation.
Know what to ask for
Like a request for anything the rules must be stated before the game commences. The translator must be made aware that the text will be read by people whose background, cultures, sense of humour and even tolerance levels diverge greatly and a middle ground must be researched and found. Once this balance has been struck, the Spanish speaking audience possibilities are only as limited as the variations themselves.
For website translation, unless your content is aimed at a very specific country, Neutral Spanish is a safe bet. Your Spanish pages will read natural to people around the world, making everyone feel right at home.
Liza D’Arcy is linguistic coordinator of the Spanish Army at the Valencian barracks in Valencia, Spain. She also works as a translator for ICanLocalize and specializes in social sciences.