Language Department’s Guide to Neutral Spanish (esNEUT)

The Flavors of Spanish

Spanish is a language spoken by more than 437 million people around the world. It is the official language of 20 countries, including Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Spain, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and the Free Associated State of Puerto Rico. Although not an official language, Spanish is also commonly spoken in the USA, Belize, Andorra, and Gibraltar.

Although the language name means “of or related to Spain”, today, Spain is home to less than 10 percent of the world’s Spanish speakers. Outside of Spain, there are many more localized dialects of Spanish, with ten major dialects across the globe. This creates a challenge for non-native speakers and linguistic professionals looking to translate material for Spanish speakers.

To combat this problem, an amalgamated dialect was conceived. It’s called Neutral Spanish (also known as Universal Spanish). This is meant to be a neutral form of the language that avoids all regionalisms, colloquialisms, and grammatical quirks that make up a dialect. In short, it allows the greatest number of Spanish speakers to understand a message without the use of local terminology and certain verb tenses. Nevertheless, it should be noticed that while the language lacks regional trends, readers can still falter on unfamiliar words. It could the best choice for mass media or journalism, as the target audience are Spanish speakers from all over the globe, but the worst option for advertising.

Neutralize or Localize?

Universal Spanish is a great tool when translating a message on a budget, but while it has many advantages, it comes with some disadvantages too.

Depending on the project, at times it’s best to remove regionalisms and idioms when creating content for translation and localization. These culturally specific terms simply won’t work as well in another language or region as they do in their original context. Using Universal Spanish can cut costs and save time when trying to reach as many Spanish speakers as possible.

Context is Everything

When using Universal Spanish, there is always the risk that your reader will not immediately recognize a translated word or phrase. We have all had a conversation or read a document in our own language and found something that sounded off, or we understand something slightly different from intended. While perhaps the incorrect terminology or tense has been used at times, we are able to comprehend the general message of the sentence, thanks to the context.

While localized translation tends to resonate more with the intended reader, some messages do not require such measures and a neutral sounding message is adequate. This can apply to academic, technical, or business texts that perhaps do not address the reader directly, maintain an objective distance to their content, talk about things that are clearly defined, or that don’t typically use everyday language.

The disadvantages of Neutral Spanish are that, at times, words that are translated with a generalized approach, totally stripped of localization, can leave readers a little confused. Therefore, you should bear in mind that when using Netutral Spanish, you may lose some of this nuance. Neutral Spanish is not advisable in marketing, for example, as localizing a language is crucial in order to resonate with your audience.

There are several common and prominent differences between the dialects from European Spanish and Latin American Spanish. For example, while singular “you” typically translates as “tú”, some Latin American countries use “vos” instead, most notably Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. This simple interpretation can result in your intended audience feeling alienated, or not “seen”.

Many common nouns vary greatly region to region, which can also be particularly problematic.

A fun example: a drinking straw in Colombia and Venezuela is “pitillo”, in Mexico it’s “popote”, it’s “pajita” or “pajilla” in Spain, and “bombilla” in Chile and Bolivia… But don’t get confused! “Bombilla” means light bulb in most Spanish-speaking countries, or “caña” in Peru, which is also a slang term in Venezuela. Keeping up?

This is a great tool to give you an idea of just how many words can be interpreted differently depending on your geographical location.

Are there other options?

If you wish to translate materials for multiple countries, it’s best to supply a list of those countries to your translation provider. They will be able to help you decide if you need to produce multiple versions of the translations for the different regions, or if a more neutral variety of the language can work for everyone.

An economical option when working with a tight budget is to start with a ‘neutral’ translation of your project as a base, which you can then have in-country editors in your target markets review to see if they would change anything. This is a suitable option for many, as editing a document is much more cost-effective than translating the whole thing.

Depending on what you’re creating, Standard Spanish could prove to be a useful tool. At the same time, be cautious with creative pieces – you may need to use a more localized Spanish dialect for maximum impact.

Still not sure which language you need for your translation project? Language Department’s expert team of native Spanish speakers are here to offer you advice and support, contact us today to discuss which translation service is right for you.