Understanding English into Spanish translation: what to know when hiring language services for Spanish-speaking audiences

When English-speaking companies are getting ready to reach Spanish-speaking audiences, they often stumble upon questions about target countries and regions and realize the many subtleties to take into account regarding English into Spanish translation and localization processes. In this article, we are going to cover the bases for a frictionless introduction to your new Spanish-speaking public.

Spanish takes on different flavors in each country (and even region) where it’s spoken. It may come as a surprise, but someone from Spain may have a hard time understanding someone from Mexico, as an example. Particularly in informal conversation. They both speak Spanish, but they don’t speak the same Spanish.

It happens in English, too (and in many other languages that extend over large territories, like Chinese or French). Imagine a North American consumer that enters a fast food restaurant wanting to eat fried pieces of potatoes. When they look at the menu, instead of “fries”, it reads “chips” (the British-variant name for the dish, which in the US means something entirely different). Needless to say, the consumer would be a little confused or even disappointed.

Now, let’s take that to digital. Google (which has 92.42% of the search engine market share worldwide) receives over 70,000 searches per second on any given day. That’s 5.8 billion searches per day and approximately 2 trillion global searches per year. Now, imagine how many of those searches could be an opportunity on a Spanish-speaking market and are getting unattended because companies didn’t translate or localize their content. Or they did it, but without taking into consideration the language variants.

Spanish language globally

Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world after Chinese. Over 572.6 million people speak Spanish worldwide, of which 477.6 million people are native speakers, 73.7 million people have some knowledge of Spanish, and another 21.2 million study Spanish as a foreign language.

There are 21 countries in the world where Spanish is the official language: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico (only de facto, not defined as the official in the legislation), Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Spain, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Mexico is the native-Spanish speaking country that has the highest population. Next on the list are Colombia and Spain.

There are also countries with a population of Spanish-speaking residents like the United States, Belize, Andorra, and Gibraltar. We’re not talking about a small number of individuals, but about entire communities of consumers. In the United States, for example, about 23% of the population speaks Spanish at home. That is around 55 million people. This means that the number of Spanish speakers in the United States exceeds the population of Spain (46.94 million).

Getting the language variants right

The business landscape is getting more complex, and the audiences are getting diverse and more demanding. Users want personalized experiences that speak to them, and being special is not that simple anymore. There are countless options for most products and services that can be consumed from anywhere in the world. It’s well known now that 3 out of 4 customers prefer to buy products in their native language and that 1 in 3 rarely or never buy from English-only websites. That means that if a potential customer looks a company up online and can’t understand their content, they won’t even try to shop: they’ll leave. That transfers the language-related decisions from a tactical to a strategic level and demands any global company wanting to target Spanish-speaking to dig deep into their options. Let’s start by learning the Spanish variants. 

As mentioned earlier, many people in the world speak Spanish, but not the same Spanish. The grammatical structure of the language is shared, but there are key differences such as pronouns and verb conjugations, and words and expressions that exist in one country and not in others, or have different meanings. 

One ‘easy’ way to classify the variants of Spanish is:

International/ global/ neutral Spanish: international Spanish is written as plain and as simple as possible so that it can be understood by Spanish speakers across the world. The units of measure are expressed in the European system. It is a simpler and less costly option, but it is too general, and it lacks the needed personalization to adequately express a brand’s voice and tone to different market segments.

Latin American (LATAM) Spanish: it’s a little more personalized than the International variant and it is meant to be understood in South and Central America. It also uses the European metric system.

US Spanish: it is spoken by Spanish populations in the United States and is highly influenced by the Mexican variant of Spanish. Using English borrowings will be more common than on the international and LATAM variants. The Imperial system of measurements is used here. Dates are formatted differently from all the other variants mm/dd/yy in the US, all other variants use dd/mm/yy.

Spain Spanish: Spanish as spoken in Spain. It’s quite different from the other variants described above.

But that’s not all. As mentioned above, the Spanish language changes not only between countries but also between regions in the same country. Let’s dig deeper into the Spanish variants. They are:

Mexican Spanish: one of the goals of the Mexican Academy of Language is to establish Spanish as an official language, since, constitutionally, it is not. However, Mexico uses Latin American Spanish to communicate with the world, although each of the different regions has its own dialect.

Rioplatense Spanish: the name refers to the language spoken in the Río de la Plata surroundings, Argentina (more specifically, Buenos Aires and the Atlantic Coast) and Uruguay. It is characterized by its particular use of voseo and by including various terms of lunfardo, a slang derived from expressions taken from the Italian language.

Northern and southern Spanish Castilian: the first is spoken in the north and center of Spain. Some consider itthe official dialect of Spanish. The second is more diverse and is made up of dialects that have several common characteristics among them.

Canarian Spanish: spoken on Canary Island, also partly influenced by Portuguese. Closely related to the Caribbean dialect of Spanish.

Equatoguinean Spanish: spoken in Equatorial Guinea, in central Africa. Native Guineans added their own vocabulary and pronunciation patterns.

Caribbean Spanish: spoken in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, in some territories of Colombia, Panama, and Venezuela, and along the eastern coast of Mexico and Central America.

Outside of those classifications, you can consider each Spanish speaking country to have their own variant, dialect, and flavor of the language.

How and where to start

Both the public and the private sector are becoming more involved with equality and diversity conversations as days go by. Whether it is to comply with government regulations or to establish meaningful bonds with a broader audience, any organization today is weighing up the possibilities at hand to communicate in languages other than English. And translating to some Spanish variant is (and often should be) one of their first places to start.

The following is an outline path to begin the English-into-Spanish translation journey. One thing to always keep in mind is that, whatever the choices are, they need to be made right from the start, before any translation efforts take place. Changing the strategy after starting will create inconsistencies in your content that will take extra time and money to fix.

First, do some research. Data analysis is powerful, but many don’t know where to start, so we suggest doing market research and web analytics as well. Start by gathering information about your business’s target audience and your current customers’ feedback, and present it in some tool that allows you to synthesize their characteristics and share them with your teams, as a buyer persona.

Don’t forget to do comparative marketing research, for both direct and indirect competitors, to find the market landscape for products/services similar to yours in countries where you think could be a good next port for you. This exercise will help you assess and determine how viable your product or service would be among your target audiences.

Lastly, go for insights on the web. Get curious and run some numbers on where people are visiting your website. What countries/cities? How often? What languages are they keying the searches in? Another approach is: what countries/ areas are your top keywords being searched from? Is there a solution in that area already, or will you be the solution to those searches?

From that analysis, you may realize that your product will only work in one country of Latin America, or in all Central America, or only in two countries, one in Central and one in South America. Then, you are ready to start talking with language providers searching for advice. Depending on what countries you are going into, language experts can recommend what variant of Spanish and language strategy to choose.

When searching for language service providers for your English into Spanish translations, there are three main aspects to explore: the team, the quality, and confidentiality.

The first key to a seamless turnaround is the qualification and experience of the translators. Native-level speakers have language knowledge but also an in-depth cultural connection with your target audiences, a combination that is critical for any successful language product. Ask your provider about their team’s background (language proficiency, education, work experience, and regulatory compliance training and certification, if relevant) and their recruitment process.

Next, talk to your LSP (Language Service Provider) about their quality assurance process: how is the accuracy of the translations verified and what feedback mechanisms are in place to implement improvements and suggestions in real-time.

Third, discuss with the LSP signing a confidentiality agreement to clarify the extent of the data protection needs for your business and your industry. You can also ask them about their knowledge of industry-specific information security regulations and obtained certifications. Also, check their technological infrastructure and safety measures in place to protect systems and resources from theft or damage.

Takeaway

There are over 500 million Spanish speakers around the world, distributed in over 25 countries. The grammatical structure of the language is shared, but there are differences among countries and even among regions in the same country, such as pronouns, verb conjugations, and specific words and expressions.

You can translate your content into international Spanish for a simpler and less costly solution or localize it for each target country or region, for a stronger and personalized connection with each audience segment. To make that decision, gather market data, and discuss a strategic plan with your language service provider.

To choose the right provider, discuss with your potential vendors the qualification and experience of their translators, their quality assurance process, and their confidentiality and security measures. When in doubt, ask more questions, back yourself up with data, and if you want to minimize risks, start small, test, and reconvene.

We know that choosing the right language partner to launch your products or services in a Spanish-speaking market can be daunting. To help you clarify the path and make the right decision, we’d like to share a checklist with the key topics that you need to discuss with your potential vendors. You can download it from the link below.

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