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SPANISH: NEUTRAL OR DIALECTAL?

Spanish is a country that allows you to move through an unlimited variety of landscapes without being stopped at any frontier; a fluid and flexible identity that allows you to be from many places and from one place at the same time.

—Antonio Muñoz Molina

The above quote, from a Spanish writer and permanent member of the Royal Spanish Academy, provides the perfect illustration of how the Spanish language acts as a unifying thread across national borders and brings together 577 million people of different backgrounds who share the same tongue.

But if Spanish speakers really communicate fluently through the same language, why does a Peruvian speaker sound so different from an Argentinean, and why does a Spaniard does not understand all the ingredients on the menu of a Mexican restaurant?

Although all native Spanish speakers can communicate with each other regardless of their origin, each country or region goes beyond the conventions of the standardized language, bringing in linguistic variations to reflect the cultural and sociological influences, experiences, and realities that make that type of Spanish unique from others. These variations, or dialects, take the form of new words or different meanings, distinct pronouns and verb conjugations, spelling variants, and unique accents, adding their own “color” or “music” to the core language. Dialectal differences are more noticeable in certain nomenclatures (such as names of animals, plants, and vegetables) and in colloquial exchanges. They are strongly attached to national identity and resonate with people of the same region, making communication with speakers from other regions a little less fluent in certain contexts.

To surpass this hiccup in communication, many disciplines and industries, including media, translation, and science, make use of a linguistic resource often called “standard Spanish” or “neutral Spanish.” It stems from the need to use a style that any Spanish speaker would understand and is characterized by simple, clear language that lacks regionalisms or cultural references.

Which approach would better meet your needs when it comes to sharing your content with Spanish speakers: a neutral language that can be understood by all Spanish speakers, or the dialect spoken in a specific country or region? This strategic decision depends not only on the extent and geographical location of your audience, but on the intent of your message and the relationship you are trying to establish with the reader.

 In a black-and-white scenario, where the main purpose of your document is to provide facts, knowledge, or instructions without expecting any emotional action or reaction from the reader, a neutral style would communicate your information effectively to any Spanish-speaking audience. This would apply, for example, to business and administrative communications, textbooks, instruction manuals, press releases, research documents, financial reports, software interfaces, and help documents, to name just a few. On the other hand, if you want to build a connection with your reader to create an emotional impact, such as in marketing, advertising, or advocacy campaigns, using the dialect of your target readers speaks to them at a deeper level and lets you appeal to their sense of belonging and identity.

However, this isn’t always such a straightforward decision. For example, if your factual text targeted to a wide audience contains a significant amount of specialized terminology, such as ingredients in a restaurant menu or tools in a hardware catalog, neutral Spanish will have its limitations. The general translation will employ the term that is prevalent in more Spanish-speaking countries, but in other countries that word might be uncommon or not used at all. To patch that hole in communication, the translator could utilize some workarounds (for example, including more than one term), but the risk is undermining fluency for the sake of understanding.

Similarly, if you need to appeal to the emotional or cultural roots of a wide variety of Spanish speakers, one dialectal variant might not have the same impact on all readers. Ads that use an informal tone vary greatly from country to country for this reason.

Would this mean that documents that do not fall under the dichotomy “general facts for a wide audience = neutral Spanish / emotions for a specific country = dialect” are doomed to be unevenly effective across different Spanish-speaking countries? In our experience, some loss might be unavoidable, but there are often ways to escape this fate.

To make the best decisions about dialect, it is imperative that we review your document thoroughly, along with your requirements and some background about the request, so that we can identify any possible terminology or cultural references that might lead to divergence. If needed, we can then involve linguists from different countries to reach a consensual unique translation or create a localized version for each region. The localization process ensures that the translation feels as if it was written with one specific audience in mind. It involves adapting the translation for a specific target to the sociolinguistic or cultural variations of each particular community you want to reach, without incurring the costs of retranslation.

Take a look at the video below for a quick view of our approach to translating for multiple audiences. At ECTrans, we are always happy to assess your document and provide you with a free roadmap and quote to suit your needs.