Spanish translation is acquiring vast global importance. Spanish is one of the six official languages in the United Nations and is used extensively in diplomatic bodies such as the Organization of American States and the Community of Latin American and the Caribbean States. It is the third most-used language on the Internet after English and Chinese.
As globalization increases, content in Spanish needs to be translated into other languages and vice versa, making the scope of Spanish translation ever greater. Let’s examine Spanish translation in general and the challenges posed by it.
This post was updated on March 2021
The Spanish Language: A Brief Background
Spanish belongs to the Ibero-Romance languages, evolving from Vulgar Latin and taking form after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Studies suggest that about 75% of modern Spanish is derived from Latin.
Latin, however, is not the only influence. The Arabic presence in the Spanish peninsula meant a great effect on the language. Studies show that around 8% of the Spanish vocabulary is derived from Arabic itself.
Other neighboring languages had an influence. Amongst them are Basque, Iberian and Visigothic. The effect of languages as disparate as Galician, Catalan, and Sardinian, cannot be discounted, in terms of vocabulary additions.
Due to the conquest of the Americas by the Spanish Empire, beginning in 1492, Spanish became prominent in these territories. Notably, territories around the globe such as the Philippines and some areas in Africa received some of this Spanish language influence too.
Spain is the foremost place where Spanish is spoken in Europe, naturally. In the Americas, Spanish is spoken across all Central and South America and in the Caribbean. The United States has a vast number of speakers too; around 38 million speak the language at home. There are around 450 million native Spanish speakers today.
Types of Spanish Translation
There are several different styles and types of Spanish translation. The main ones are the following:
- Literary Translation: This deals with literature and is a translation of high difficulty. Apart from maintaining precision, a translator must create a translated work that is well written, pleasant, indeed beautiful. Usually, a translator will need a lot of experience to begin tackling these sorts of projects.
- Translation and Dubbing of Films and Television: There are many films and television programs that need to be translated and then dubbed, mostly from English into Spanish.
- Translation of Documents and of Copy in general: The variety of material that may demand Spanish translation is staggering. This includes legal documents, medical texts, advertising copy, manuals of all sorts and much more.
Challenges of Spanish Translation
The difficulties of Spanish translation are vast. Here are some of the basic challenges:
Bilingualism vs. Translation
One of the first challenges in Spanish translation is the gap between bilingualism and proper translation. It is simply not enough for someone to be bilingual in English and Spanish. The first challenge is finding a translator trained and experienced in Spanish translation, and not just a bilingual person.
There are some things a bilingual person may do, to prove their ability to take on a Spanish translation project. Education and training are useful. There are also a number of certifications that may be acquired, to prove proficiency in translation. These vary, depending on the country of residence of the aspiring translator. Finally, experience will teach a translator the subtleties of the craft and permit tacking more difficult projects later on.
Length and Brevity
This is an interesting problem in Spanish translation, often overlooked. Spanish is a longer language, so to speak. If an English text is placed next to its Spanish translation, often the Spanish version will be longer. There have been estimates which suggest that Spanish is around 30% longer than English.
What this means is that a seasoned translator should be hired if there is a need for equal length in the source language text and its Spanish translation. This is especially necessary in advertising copy, for instance, which must preserve pithiness and a particular aesthetic.
One of the biggest differences between Spanish and English is the issue of formality. Spanish has different forms which convey a level of familiarity and informality vs. seriousness and formality: the “tu” and “usted” forms. “Tu” would be used to address a friend or family member, whilst “usted” would be used to more formally address a figure of authority.
English, obviously, doesn’t have these forms. This poses a challenge to a translator, when trying to render the intent of a Spanish text in English, or when translating from a seemingly neutral English and having to make a choice in Spanish. A talented translator must figure out the intent of the text, its potential audience, and choose the correct translation.
Localization and Accents
A notable challenge in Spanish translation is the issue of localization. Spanish is one language, of course, but accents, slang and preferred vocabulary may vary wildly across countries.
This problem of localization is especially prevalent in the case of English to Spanish translation of television and film. This has led to translations and dubbings in a single ‘neutral’ accent and language. Mexico is the most important dubbing center in the Americas, indeed the world, although Spain has its own dubbing industry for internal consumption.
In Spain, practically all foreign language film and television is dubbed into European Spanish. Mexico, on the other hand, dubs most foreign language film and television for the whole of the Americas. Colombia has recently started dubbing content but Mexico still remains the epicenter of Latin American Spanish dubbing, with as much as 70% of the market.
The Mind of an Author
Famous literary translator, Gregory Rabassa, and his translations showcase the issue of understanding the mind of an author, as a requirement for translating literature.
Arguably, Rabassa’s most famous translated line is: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” This line, of course, is the opening to ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez. Rabassa’s major claim to fame was perhaps this book’s translation. It is widely held as exceptional and herein we encounter the other great topic of Spanish translation: getting into an author’s mind, to come up with excellent translations. Says Rabassa: “When you translate [artists’ works] from Spanish to English, you’re translating their minds [and not just their words]. You can tell when a writer’s voice is authentic. Good translations allow readers to get to know good writers.”
Precision vs. Beauty
One of the greatest challenges for any translator, particularly in literary translation, is the conflict between precision and beauty. Famous Spanish-English literary translator Edith Grossman explains: “Fidelity is our noble purpose, but it does not have much, if anything, to do with what is called literal meaning. A translation can be faithful to tone and intention, to meaning. It can rarely be faithful to words or syntax.”
Harry Potter’s translation into Spanish is revealing of this dualism. When Harry’s uncle hums “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”, the translator translated the phrase completely into Spanish and wrote “De puntillas entre los tulipanes”. Many names and words invented by J.K Rowling, however, were left unchanged in the Spanish translation, such as quidditch: “¿Hagrid, qué es el quidditch?” Such is the talent of a translator, to know when to be totally precise, and when to try to retain the intent of a word or phrase by trying to find what’s most aesthetically pleasing, but not necessarily the most literal.
A good Spanish translator must be bilingual and also bicultural. A big part of a successful Spanish translation means understanding the differences between the two languages and cultures being translated. A poor cultural understanding may be very problematic. Chevrolet had to learn this the hard way in Mexico in the 1970’s, or so the legend goes.
General Motors introduced their Chevrolet Nova model with high hopes for the Mexican market, but soon found out that the car was not selling as well as they expected. Finally someone suggested a possible cause for the poor sales. “Nova” in Spanish could arguably be understood as “Doesn’t Go” (“No” = “Doesn’t”; “Va” = “Go”). The company decided to change its name and sales improved. Although some have recently challenged this story, the lesson seems to remain: know the language and know the culture.
Challenges of Spanish Translators
We’ve seen the major challenges posed by Spanish translation. Now let’s take a look at another set of challenges, those faced by the translation professionals themselves.
Freelancing and Networking
The biggest challenge for a translator, in the world of Spanish translation and beyond, is undoubtedly acquiring a steady stream of work and a solid base of clients.
Although Spanish translation may, at first glance, appear to be a reclusive activity, a tremendous amount of networking is necessary, particularly if the translator is a freelancer and is building an independent translations business.
Pay and Second Jobs
Spanish literary translation, unfortunately, doesn’t pay very well. In any case, it doesn’t pay well enough that a literary translator may work exclusively in that area. Most of them translate and do something else, usually college/university-level teaching.
The highest-paying jobs, at the end of the day, don’t usually go to translators. Not even to literary translators. Simultaneous interpreters, working at the highest levels are the best-paid language professionals.
Spanish is a language of global importance and the need for Spanish translation is ever greater. Literary translation, translation, and dubbing of films and television and translation of documents and copy are the main forms of Spanish translation.
There are a number of challenges in achieving a successful Spanish translation such as the issue of formality, localization, accents, the dualism between precision and beauty, and the need for cultural knowledge. For a Spanish translator, the challenge of acquiring clients is paramount.
And, of course, if you’re looking for the best translators in the business, consider Bunny Studio as your go-to solution for high-quality translations.