Customer Insights

English to Spanish Translation: 7 Key Challenges and Solutions

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.

Veronica Pastuch's avatar
Veronica Pastuch

December 13, 2022

10 MIN READ

With 483 million native speakers, Spanish is the second most common mother tongue in the world. So, it should come as no surprise that it’s also one of the most popular languages for website translation. However, before you begin building a Spanish language website, you need to consider several factors such as the target market, local dialect, and cultural norms.

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

Let’s take a look at each.

1. There are multiple versions of Spanish.

Spanish has ten major variations that are spoken throughout the world. (For comparison, English only has seven). These include:

Spain (Peninsular Spanish):

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

Canary Islands:

  • Canarian

Gibraltar:

  • Llanito

The Americas:

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

Africa:

  • Equatoguinean Spanish, which is spoken in Equatorial Guinea.

Each dialect has variations in grammar, vocabulary, and cultural norms. For example, U.S. Spanish uses borrowed words from English and maintains the U.S. formats for dates/time, addresses, and units of measurements. While speakers of Rioplatense use the informal you form “vos” instead of the more common “tu”.

This makes translation difficult because you must first decide which region(s) you want to target and how to best account for the differences.

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. The formal usted/ustedes (you/you all) is used to address strangers, acquaintances, and superiors. While the informal tú/vos/ustedes (you/you all) is used to address friends, family, and children. 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 a 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.

On average, a Spanish text translation will be about 20 to 30% longer than the original English. That’s because the language sometimes uses additional words to convey the same message. For example, the word “please” translates to “por favor”.

When it comes to website translation, the longer text length poses a challenge because of the space constraints. Page formatting, buttons, and dropdown boxes can limit the number of characters, which makes it difficult to recreate the same message in Spanish.

Solution

Internationalization allows you to develop a website that properly renders content in any language. Instead of focusing on a specific language, like localization, internationalization is the process of building a website that can adapt to different text lengths, text orientations, and special characters.

4. Spanish and English have entirely different grammar.

Because Spanish and English originate from different language families (Romance and Germanic, respectively), the two have several grammatical differences. 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. Cultural nuances have to be accounted for.

Cultural differences between Spanish-speaking and English-speaking countries also impact 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.

Striking the right tone requires an understanding of cultural norms and preferences.

Solution:

Taking a localized approach allows translators to adapt the message to better appeal to Spanish-speaking audiences. Localization goes beyond translating content and involves making changes to account for differences in each location, such as cultural references or 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, all you need is the infinitive verb and the auxiliary “don’t”, if you want to make it negative. But in Spanish, you need to 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, if you wanted to say, “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” you would ask, 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.

The lack of a direct translation means translators sometimes need to get creative to convey the same meaning in the target language.

Considerations for English to Spanish Website Translation

In addition to translation, there are other factors to consider before you build a Spanish languages website. Here are three tips to help you get started.

  • Start the internationalization process first. This enables you to adjust the design to account for longer Spanish text and special characters.
  • Use localization to adapt content, images, and other visual elements. This will help you connect with local audiences by demonstrating that you understand their cultural norms and preferences. For example, let’s say you want to localize for Mexico, a country with a significant indigenous influence. You could use indigenous borrowed words in place of Spanish ones and use images of people with indigenous heritage to connect with Mexican audiences.
  • Optimize for SEO. In order to maximize your website’s visibility, you need to localize 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. This is a set of integrated technologies that instantly serves localized websites. It works independently of your CMS, and doesn’t need to be configured for your system.
  • Translation API. This is a programmatic interface that incorporates NMT into your website to publish content in multiple languages. It can automatically check for new content and submit it to your translation vendor for translation.
  • CMS connector. This is a preconfigured interface that is developed by your translation agency. It integrates the provider’s translation connector, plugin, or API to your CMS.
  • NMT. This is a method of machine translation that uses artificial neural networks to predict the sequence of words. It can instantly generate passages of text in the target 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

As you can see, an English to Spanish website translation is a major undertaking. That’s why you should hire a reliable translation service to ensure accuracy and efficiency.

When you partner with MotionPoint, we’ll work closely with you to determine the best translation solutions to meet your needs and goals. From our advanced technology to in-country linguists, we have the tools and expertise to bring your Spanish language website to life.

Want to learn more? Contact MotionPoint today.

Last updated on December 13, 2022
Veronica Pastuch's avatar

About Veronica Pastuch

Throughout her 15-year career leading successful multicultural teams in the website localization industry, Veronica Pastuch has directly contributed to the translation, deployment and ongoing support of more than 1,500 multilingual websites, with an absolute commitment to superior quality and customer satisfaction.

Veronica Pastuch's avatar
Veronica Pastuch

EVP of Translation Operations

10 MIN READ

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