6 of the Most Common Spanish Translation Errors
Translation is a form of art that requires knowledge about 2 languages but also an understanding of their culture and peculiarities. Not that many people have the latter, and that results in some awkward mistakes and misunderstandings.
In the English-Spanish field, having a deeper understanding of the language is essential since word-by-word translation is not the best approach when trying to match meaning. As Spanish is the second-most spoken native language in the world and the fourth-most spoken language overall, you can imagine it has a lot of different dialects.
Being an official language in more than 20 countries and widely spoken in the United States, Belize, Andorra, Gibraltar, France, Easter Island, Philippines and some parts of Africa, Spanish is an important language for travel and for business.
And with the growth of business deals, collaborations and cultural exchanges between the United States and Latin America comes the rushed translations and sloppy in-house efforts that can sometimes create confusion or communication breakdowns.
Let’s explore some of the most common errors in English-Spanish translations and a few funny convos!
1. Not Knowing the Dialect
One of the most common mistakes when translating English to Spanish is not knowing which variant of Spanish to write. As mentioned earlier, Spanish is spoken in more than 20 countries which means there are innumerable dialects and regional variances.
The same thing happens for English when writing for the United States versus the UK. But in Spanish, we have more than 2 dialects. The most important differences are in vocabulary, and although there are also variations in pronunciation (such as seseo, or yeísmo), those are not relevant in translations.
When translating, we must know if we are writing for a specific country or not, to use the most common wording and vocabulary there. Of course, there is also a ‘neutral Spanish’, that is mostly Mexican-inspired. But if you’re trying to attract and communicate accurately for a certain market, the best thing to do is to is to write in their specific dialect also known as localization.
This is a huge problem in translation projects, but also in communication between Spanish-speaking people and it’s always amusing to learn how they refer to certain things in other countries. So, let’s see a funny example:
¿How do you say popcorn in Spanish?
Well, in Spain and Mexico is palomitas, in Argentina is pochoclo, in Peru is canchitas, in Colombia is crispetas, in Venezuela is cotufas, in Guatemala is poporopos, in Paraguay is pororo, in Chile is cabritas, and the list goes on. ¡So many ways to describe such a simple snack!
2. To Be or Not to Be – Differences Between ‘ser’ y ‘estar’
This is the most common mistake when learning and translating in Spanish. The verb ‘to be’ could be translated in 2 ways: ‘ser’ y ‘estar’. These are not synonyms, in most cases, the use of one or the other can change the meaning of a sentence completely.
¿When to use ‘ser’? This verb refers to permanent or lasting attributes such as descriptions, occupations, characteristics, time, origin and relationships.
¿When to use ‘estar’? This verb is used to indicate position, location, action, condition or emotion.
Let’s see an example:
Ser aburrido = to be boring / Estar aburrido = to be bored.
Ser listo = to be smart / Estar listo = to be ready.
3. False Friends, Beware!
A ‘false friend’ is when words look similar in two languages, but they have different meanings. This is one of the most challenging things when people are learning a new language.
You should also be aware of words with double meanings. When translating to Spanish, the best scenario is that a person from another dialect or country doesn’t understand a word, but also, it could be that that word has a bad meaning. That’s why having native and experienced translators is the best option when dealing with important information.
Here are some ‘false friends’ examples:
- Actually ≠ actualmente (is ‘en realidad’).
- Eventually ≠ eventualmente (is ‘finalmente’).
- Library ≠ librería (is ‘biblioteca’).
- Carpet ≠ carpeta (is ‘alfombra’).
- Discussion ≠ discusión (is ‘debate’).
- Sensible ≠ sensible (is ‘sensato’).
- Assist ≠ asistir (is ‘ayudar’).
4. ‘Tú’, ‘vos’ or ‘usted’?
Related to the mix-up with dialects often found in English-Spanish translations, we have the confusion over ‘tú‘, ‘vos‘ or ‘usted‘. In Spanish, these are the 3 ways to refer to the second-person singular.
‘You’ can be translated to ‘tú’ in some countries, to ‘vos‘ in others, and to ‘usted‘ when you are trying to address the reader formally. And these pronouns influence the verbs, so it is very obvious to Spanish-speaking people when you are using each one.
Something similar happens with second-person plural: there is ‘vosotros‘ or ‘ustedes‘. Let’s see an example of how the same phrase would translate in the 3 different second-person singular variants:
If you want a professional translation service…
Si tú quieres un servicio de traducción profesional…
Si vos querés un servicio de traducción profesional…
Si usted quiere un servicio de traducción profesional…
5. Not Everything is About You
In English, it is a requirement to have a noun or pronoun in every sentence, but this is not the case for Spanish. One of the most common mistakes of those who don’t fully understand the language is to always add a pronoun before every verb.
‘I went to the gym’ literal translation would be ‘Yo fui al gimnasio’ but Spanish speakers would find it odd that you added the ‘yo’, when it is understood that you are talking about yourself because of the verb conjugation. So, ‘Fui al gimnasio’ is the best option.
However, it is good to use pronouns in Spanish when you need to emphasize the phrase or make comparisons. Check out this example:
I speak English fluently. = Hablo inglés fluidamente.
I don’t understand Spanish, but she does. = Yo no entiendo español, pero ella sí.
6. Don’t forget idiomatic expressions
An idiomatic expression is a combination of words that form a phrase, whose meaning is not related to the meaning of the words that compose it. When translating English-Spanish texts, idiomatic expressions can be tricky.
Using colloquial phrases in your Spanish translations, even more when you are trying to appeal to a certain market, will sound more familiar and trustworthy to readers. But remember, idiomatic expressions vary from country to country, so you must know which ones to use depending on your target audience.
¡Let’s see some idiomatic expressions in Spanish!
Esto es pan comido = This is a piece of cake.
No tiene ni pies ni cabeza = Without rhyme or reason.
Dar en el blanco = To hit the bulls-eye.
Encuentra a tu media naranja = Find your other half.
Getting It Right With Spanish
So, the next time you even think about using Google Translate for your clients, marketing campaign, or web-page content, think twice! Mastering Spanish can take years of reading, writing, studying, and experience.
A slip-up could be funny, but it can also be an issue when dealing in professional environments. Remember that when you’re dealing with legal papers, healthcare information or other life-altering written communications, it’s necessary to be careful with the language and use appropriate terminology.
Don’t forget that a language is more than grammar and vocabulary, it’s the bridge that connects us. At Ad Astra we take that statement very seriously, working hard in every translation and interpretation that we tackle. We care about excellence and accuracy in our work, considering all of the nuances of the Spanish language and its many dialects!