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Spanish Translation Tips

At first glance, it may seem that Spanish and English use a similar sentence structure except, most notably, in English the adjective is before the noun and in Spanish the noun is before the adjective (see first bullet point below) and, therefore,  creating the illusion that Spanish translation is easy.  If you know both languages translating into Spanish is a ‘slam dunk.’   However, Spanish translations are tricky not just due to the differences but often due to their similarities.   First, Spanish and English share the same Roman alphabet. Second, approximately 30% of all words in Spanish have a related word in English;  with related sound, appearance and meaning.  These “cognates”   are very useful when performing a translation; however, there are also many false cognates.  For example, exit in Spanish is “salida.” “Éxito” means success in Spanish. “Coraje” in Spanish means anger, not bravery. “Actual” in Spanish means current and not actual, meaning real.   There are many, many more false cognates that present pitfalls for the unwary translator. “Preservativo” in Spanish means “condom” not preservative; “conservante” is the correct term for food additives that delay spoilage which in turn has nothing to do with a right wing political position.

That is why Spanish translators are most successful when they are a native speaker of the language they are translating into (as is the case with many Los Angeles-based Spanish –English and English –Spanish translators). The next best thing is for a translator to be a native speaker of both languages where the person has been raised in both cultures and countries and has had advanced schooling in both languages and is so fully immersed in the two languages where a level of advanced proficiency has been achieved;  however, this is very rare.

Here are a few of the differences between Spanish and English that could make a simple Spanish translation not so simple:

  • As abovementioned, adjectives are often after the noun in Spanish while the opposite is more often true in English. For example, the Spanish equivalent of “manzana roja” is “red apple;”   “Un hombre grande”  is “a tall man” and so on. And here too is an example of a potentially false cognate.   “Grande” in Spanish may mean tall, large, great, vast and so on.   “Tall” in English is mostly a reference to height except in cases of tall orders or tall tales. Context is crucial and judgment must be used.

  • The Spanish language often has no need for “it”, “he”, “she”, “we”, “I” etc. because verbs reflect the subject of the sentence, but they are sometimes used anyway for emphasis. In English, these pronouns are not optional so that it is understood who or what is the subject. For example, “Going to the store” does not let us know who is going to the store, but in Spanish, “Vamos a la tienda” reflects that we are going to the store without specifically using the word for “we”.

  • Verb tenses are much more complicated in Spanish than in English and a translator must have in-depth knowledge of these. In English there are three basic forms of the verb: present , past, past participle, while in Spanish there are nine basic forms, with both languages using auxiliary verbs to make other tenses. In Spanish, each form has 6 different styles depending on who or what performed the action. Choosing the correct tense when going from one language to another requires care to convey the precise meaning.

  • In Spanish, words are almost always spelled the way they sound, but this is often not the case in English.


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