When I get a request for a quote on a translation, I am often asked what kind of Spanish I speak, as if every country in Latin America speaks a different version of the language.
Microsoft has probably played a part in promoting this perception with its Microsoft Office Language Options screen. (yikes!)
If I ran a translation agency and saw that list of ‘Spanish languages’, I’d be very concerned about hiring the right person for the job as well, specially in the case of a medical or legal document.
I’ve written this post to help dispel some common misconceptions about the Spanish language.
The biggest difference between Spain and Latin America’s Spanish is in the pronunciation of the letter “z”.
In Spain, the letter “z” is pronounced like the “th” sound in “think” while in Latin America, it is pronounced like the letter “s”.
You can hear the difference in these sample sound files: Spanish Pronunciation Sound of the letter Z
The letter “c” in some cases is also pronounced as a Spanish “z” as in the word “cocido” (cooked).
If I talk to a Spaniard and I say “zapato” (shoe) without making the Spanish ‘z’ sound I will be perfectly understood. They’ll just know I’m not from Spain.
Word usage and colloquial words
In Spain the word “ordenador” (from the French ordinateur) is used to refer to a computer while in Latin America we use the word “computadora” (as in computer).
I don’t use the word “ordenador” in my normal speech but I’m familiar with it and will use if I’m writing for a Spanish audience.
I never use the word “chamaca” (girl) in my daily speech but I am familiar with the word and its meaning as I am familiar with other slang words from various Latin American countries and Spain.
Normally, you would not use such colloquial words in standard business communications anyway, so for all practical purposes those word variations are neutral or irrelevant.
Unlike British and U.S. English, there are NO SPELLING VARIATIONS between Spanish from Spain and Latin America.
The reason for this is simple. The Spanish language is officially regulated by the Royal Spanish Academy based in Madrid. This institution is a major publisher of dictionaries and has a formal procedure for admitting words into its publications.
In contrast, there’s not a governing body overseeing the English language, which explains the numerous differences in English spellings and pronunciation. New words are added to the English language every year from many sources including social trends, the media and new technology.
Choosing a Translator
There are always exceptions but in general, if someone has been raised and properly educated in a Spanish speaking country, then there’s a good probability they have a good command of the Spanish language.
On the other hand, if someone has been raised in the U.S. or some other non-Spanish speaking country, even if Spanish is their native language it is likely they will not have mastery of the language. (The exception to the rule would be someone who has pursued advanced studies in linguistics in that language).
This is true particularly in the case of immigrants from Cuba, Puerto Rico and Mexico, who have distorted the Spanish language a bit after living and working in the U.S. for a number of years.
One can not ignore the influence and role of the media in a person’s knowledge and mastery of a language.
For instance, Spanish speaking attorneys and media personalities living in the U.S. can often be heard on Spanish TV saying “La Corte” (The Court) instead of “El Tribunal” and “ticket” as in traffic ticket instead of “multa”. Spanish speakers living in the U.S. will naturally pick up and use those words in their every day speech.
To summarize, If you’re trying to learn Spanish as a second language or if you’re concerned about hiring an English-Spanish translator from “the right Spanish-speaking country“ just remember:
The biggest difference among the various Spanish speaking countries is in the pronunciation of two letters (c and z), the accent and the use of slang words.
On paper we all sound the same. 🙂
British vs. American English
The differences between British and American English are much more pronounced than those between Spain and Latin America’s Spanish when you consider the vast number of spelling variations, a situation that thankfully, we don’t have in Spanish.
Maybe we’ll explore this topic in a future post.
Lisette is a freelance writer, editor and translator.