Customer Insights

7 Challenges of English to Spanish Translation

Translating English to Spanish is more complex than it may seem. Although there are solutions that can expedite more simple translations, the quickest solutions are rarely accurate. Learn more about the challenges of English to Spanish translation.

Jessica Rivera's avatar
Jessica Rivera

December 13, 2022

15 MIN READ

With 483 million native speakers, Spanish is the second most common mother tongue in the world. Moreover, 13% of Americans speak Spanish as their main language at home. The United States has the second highest number of Spanish speakers in the world, second only to Mexico.

So, it should come as no surprise that it’s also one of the most popular languages for website translation. Before translating English to Spanish, think about your target audience, local language, and culture.

The Challenges of English to Spanish Translation

Although English to Spanish is a common language pair, a Spanish translation still presents several challenges. These include:

  • Multiple versions of Spanish
  • Differing levels of formality
  • Longer text length in Spanish
  • Different grammatical structures

Here’s an example of each:

1. Spanish has many versions

Spanish has ten major variations across the globe. For reference, English only has seven. The variations of Spanish include:

Spain (Peninsular Spanish):

  • Castilian, the standard form of European Spanish
  • Andalusian
  • Murcian

Canary Islands:

  • Canarian

Gibraltar:

  • Llanito

The Americas:

  • Most of Mexico, Columbia, Peru, Bolivia, and the majority of Central and South America speak Latin American Spanish.
  • People speak Rioplatense Spanish in and around the Rio de la Plata Basin of Argentina and Uruguay.
  • People speak Caribbean Spanish in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and along the east coast of Mexico and Central America.
  • U.S. Spanish

Africa:

  • Those in Equatorial Guinea speak Equatoguinean Spanish.

Each dialect has variations in grammar, vocabulary, and cultural norms. U.S. Spanish borrows English words and keeps U.S. formats for dates, addresses, and measurements.

Translation is difficult because you must decide which region(s) you want to target.

Solution

Human translators should use a localization approach to ensure the content is grammatically and linguistically correct for each region. Unlike traditional translation, localization gives translators more flexibility with word choice, tone, and makes it easier to adapt content for cultural norms.

2. Spanish utilizes differing levels of formality.

Unlike English, Spanish has two levels of formality to address someone. You use “usted/ustedes” to address those you don’t know well or who are in a higher position. You can address friends, family, or children with “/vos/ustedes“. In Latin America, ustedes also serves as the informal you all, but in Spain people use vosotros/vosotras instead.

This poses a challenge when it comes to setting the right tone for an English to Spanish translation. Should you use the informal you to sound more personable or err on the side of formality?

Solution

Linguists have to strike a happy medium between messaging and formality. To do so, they need a thorough understanding of the cultural preferences of the local-specific markets.

3. Spanish translations are commonly longer than English.

Spanish text is about 20 to 30% longer than English. This is because it often uses additional words to convey the same message. For example, the English word “please” translates to “por favor.

The longer text length poses a challenge because of space constraints. Formatting, buttons, and dropdowns can restrict character count, making it hard to replicate the message in Spanish.

Solution

Internationalization involves creating a website that can adapt to different text lengths, orientations, and special characters. This is in contrast to localization, which focuses solely on one language.

4. Spanish and English have entirely different grammar.

Spanish is a Romance language and English is a Germanic language, so they use different grammar rules. These include:

  • Syntax. Spanish uses the same subject-verb-object structure as English, but it has more flexibility when it comes to word order. For example, a Spanish speaker may say, “Lo escribió Cervantes”, to refer to Cervantes writing a book. But a direct translation, “The book wrote it,” doesn’t make sense in English.  
  • Gendered nouns. All Spanish nouns are either masculine or feminine, which also determines the noun’s article and ending. For example, “la casa” (the house) is feminine and “el escritorio” (the desk) is masculine.
  • Adjectives. Spanish adjectives change to match the gender and number of the noun. For example, “the desks” becomes “los escritorios”. And they usually come after the noun in a sentence. If you want to refer to “the old desks”, you would say, “los escritorios antiguos.”
  • Verb tenses. Unlike English, which alters verbs with suffixes, Spanish verb tenses change depending on the subject (I, you, he/she/it, we, they).

Solution:

A professional Spanish translator can easily identify subtle differences in grammar and account for them. This poses more of a challenge if you’re looking for an automated solution such as neural machine translation (NMT).

5. Account for cultural nuances.

Culture also has a big impact on translation. Each culture has unique ways of communicating and expressing ideas.

For example, the tone of English language marketing tends to be more enthusiastic and relies on exclamation points to reinforce this. However, doing so in Spanish may seem demanding instead of persuasive.

The concept of time also differs. In Spanish-speaking cultures, time is less rigid and schedules tend to be more flexible. For example, in Spanish, there’s no distinction between evening and night. This can impact how urgent a message sounds.

You’ll need knowledge of cultural norms and preferences to communicate with your Spanish-speaking audience.

Solution:

Taking a localized approach allows translators to adapt the message to better appeal to Spanish-speaking audiences. Website localization is more than just translating. It also takes into account cultural differences and tone of voice.

6. Spanish has many false cognates (“false friends”)

False cognates or “false friends” are words that look and sound similar, but don’t have the same meaning. These include:

  • Actual, which means “current” in Spanish.
  • Rope, which can be confused with ropa (clothing).
  • Exist, which can be confused with éxito (success).

While false cognates are no trouble for professional linguists, they can trip up non-native speakers.

Solution

Hiring a professional translator is key. Even if someone on your team speaks Spanish, they may not have a deep enough understanding to translate everything correctly. Plus, translators have the advantage of using translation software such as a translation memory to assist them.

7. Forming negatives or interrogatives in English from Spanish

Negative statements and questions are formed differently in each language. Below are four ways Spanish differs from English:

No auxiliaries

Spanish doesn’t use auxiliary verbs, also called helping verbs, to communicate complicated grammatical concepts such as aspects of time or modalities. To create a negative sentence, you only need the participle “no” and the verb. For example, “I don’t eat meat” translates to “No como carne.”

Double negation vs. Single negation

If you start a sentence with a negative verb, you need another negative element such as nunca (never), nada (none) or nadie (no one). For example, “There is nobody in the house.” translates to “No hay nadie en la casa.”

Yet if the negative word comes before the verb, you only need a single negation. For example, “You never help me.” translates to “Nunca me ayudas.”

Negative Imperative and the Subjunctive Mood.

To give an order in English, use the infinitive verb “don’t” and make it negative. In Spanish, you use the present subjunctive mood that matches the subject. For example, “Don’t go.” translates to “No te vayas.”

Question Tags

In Spanish, question tags primarily serve to confirm the initial statement. Below is a list of common question tags and how to use them correctly.

  • ¿no cierto?, can be used when the main sentence is affirmative.
  • ¿o no? can be used when the main sentence is affirmative.
  • ¿o sí? is used when the main sentence is negative.
  • ¿verdad? can be used whether the main sentence is negative or affirmative.

For example, “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” translates to, Es un lindo día, ¿no cierto?”

Solution

To ensure your content is grammatically correct, you should work with translators who are native Spanish speakers. They’ll have the expertise to determine what can and can’t be omitted.

Spanish Words That Don’t Exist in English

Another thing to consider? Certain words don’t have a direct translation from English to Spanish and vice versa. Here are just three words that exist in Spanish, but not in English.

  • ¡Ojo! The word literally translates to “eye”, but can mean “watch out” or “be careful” in certain contexts.
  • Estrenar. The word roughly translates to “wear or use something for the first time.” For example, the English sentence “I wore my new coat for the first time,” translates to “Ayer estrené mi abrigo nuevo.”
  • Sobremesa. The word literally translates to “over the table”, but it refers to conversations at the dinner table long after the meal is over.

Translators often need to get creative when there are no direct translations between languages.

Considerations for English to Spanish Website Translation

There are a few more things to consider when building an English to Spanish website:

  • Start the internationalization process first. You can adjust the format to fit longer Spanish text and special characters.
  • Use localization to adapt content, images, and other visual elements. You can connect with locals by showing you understand their culture and preferences. For example, you can localize for Mexico by connecting with their indigenous population.
  • Optimize for SEO.Maximize your website’s visibility by localizing translated content for SEO—including meta titles and descriptions. SEO localization involves optimizing content to include high traffic keywords and phrases in the target market. This will help you drive traffic and ensure you’re answering the questions local audiences ask.

You’ll also want to consider how to best translate your website. Below is a look at three different technologies that help you adapt your content quickly and affordably.

  • Translation proxy. Proxy translation technology works separately from your CMS and requires no configuration.
  • Translation API. APIs allow you to queue and access translations automatically and easily.
  • CMS connector. This is an interface that integrates the provider’s translation connector, plugin, or API to your CMS.
  • NMT. Neural Machine Translation (NMT). This is machine translation that uses AI to instantly generate text in a new language. Google Translate is one of the most popular NMT tools.

The method you choose will depend on your ongoing translation needs and budget.

Use Reliable English to Spanish Translation Services

Translating a website from English to Spanish is a major undertaking. That’s why you should hire a reliable website translation service to ensure accuracy and efficiency.

At MotionPoint, we’ll help you choose the right solution for your needs and goals. With our technology and expert linguists, we have the tools to bring your Spanish website to life.

Want to learn more? Contact MotionPoint today.

Last updated on December 13, 2022
Jessica Rivera's avatar

About Jessica Rivera

Jessica Rivera brings an expert understanding of global business, executive leadership, and holistic team and culture building to her role as MotionPoint’s EVP, Global Sales and Corporate Affairs. She has over 15 years of experience collaborating with C-suites at leading SaaS and fintech companies.

Jessica Rivera's avatar
Jessica Rivera

EVP, People & Performance / Chief Legal Officer

15 MIN READ

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