10 tips to get the best English-to-Spanish translations

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Your business is thriving and you’re ready to go global. You’ve done some research and the data shows there’s interest in Spanish-speaking markets. Next step? It’s time to adapt and properly launch your products in these new markets. Which means getting your copy and content translated into Spanish. ¡Vamos!

But where do you begin? How do you choose a translator? How do you make sure you end up with a great English to Spanish translation? Here are 10 tips that will help you answer these and other questions you might have.

1. Figure out which Spanish dialect you need

Start by looking at your research data to figure out what Spanish-speaking areas you’re getting the most attention from. If your potential audience is large enough in several different Spanish-speaking countries, then you should consider getting different translations for each Spanish dialect.

Spanish is a rich and diverse language, and you’ll need to take this into account when targeting Spanish speakers, whether it’s audiences all around the world or a specific market in one country.

The goal is always to ensure you’re not alienating anyone — either with some sort of artificial, internationalized form of Spanish or with local expressions from a very different variant. And the best way to do this is by working with a different translator for each dialect.

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2. Choose the form of address — usted or ?

The next step is establishing how formal or informal you want to sound in Spanish. In English, it’s pretty easy — you tell your writers you either want it casual or more formal, and they compose the text using language that fits the context. In Spanish, that’s not enough. You’ve got to specify the form of address because there are two words for you in Spanish — the formal usted and the informal .

Why isn’t it enough to just say you want formal or informal? Well, tones often lie on a continuum and are open to interpretation — which means they won’t always match the the translators’ choice of you.

The solution? You make a choice right from the start. It’s the best way to avoid ending up with glaring inconsistencies in your translations. Just ask any Spanish translator how many times they’ve seen Spanish website copy switching from usted to . And then ask them how bad of an impression it makes on the reader!

But how can you decide what’s best if you have no idea how Spanish works? Well, now that you know how important it is to make a choice, talk to your Spanish translator(s) — potential or current — and ask them what they think is the best choice for each dialect and purpose. And then stick to it.

3. Focus on localization

Which brings us to point three: taking care of the singularities of Spanish in each cultural setting.

Don’t be afraid to ask your translators to adapt the content of your message to fit whatever works locally. For example, if your original English text happens to be a story about a parent taking their kid to a baseball game, this might work perfectly well in Spanish-speaking countries like Cuba, the Dominican Republic, or Mexico — where baseball is a national sport — but people in Spain, for example, will not relate. In such cases, it may be worth adapting the story to an entirely different sport altogether to create the same effect. Don't be afraid to encourage your translators to do so. They will appreciate your trust in them and produce better work for it! (In case you were wondering, soccer/football would be the way to go for Spain!)

The more creative you get with your localization process, the closer you’re getting to transcreation, which is a form of translation that can involve rewriting whole parts or changing the content entirely to create the same effect in a very different market.

4. Be prepared for Spanish to be longer

Due to the nature of the Spanish language and how sentences are constructed, Spanish texts are usually longer than the English source texts.

If you work with websites, software, or apps, you’ll want to pay close attention to this one. Texts in UIs, strings, and websites are often constrained by space limitations, so the sooner you take this into account, the better — ideally at the development stage — to avoid problems like overcrowded or missing text.

Translators can sometimes work around these issues — by using abbreviations or English terms — but remember that the whole point of having your product translated into Spanish is to provide your Spanish-speaking customers with the best user experience possible. So, keep spacing issues in mind to give your translators the best chance of keeping your Spanish-speaking users happy.

5. Use Spanish equivalents of English terms — within reason

Like most languages, Spanish borrows words from other languages, especially English. For example, marketing, smartphone, and show are all words used in Spanish, even though there are homegrown equivalents. What’s best for your translations? Well, most language professionals will tell you that the Spanish words are best, but only if there are suitable Spanish equivalents!

Sticking to just Spanish is hard to do, especially in tech, as many new concepts and innovations simply don’t have a Spanish word yet. Solution? Ask your translators to use the words that real people use on a regular basis. This becomes more important than ever if SEO is involved.

Again, it’s worth mentioning that conventions vary immensely from one dialect to another. The level of acceptance of English words in Spanish is much greater in Mexican Spanish, for example, than in Spanish from Spain.

6. Avoid the default male gender

Spanish is a gendered language which means that when you talk about an individual, you have to assign a gender. For example, “Ask your friend.” is gender neutral in English, but in Spanish, you have to specify if you’re talking about a male or female friend (amigo or amiga).

So the translator has to either make a choice or find a workaround to avoid specifying a gender — ie. rewording the text.

It's important to note that, traditionally, the male form has been considered the default gender when it is unknown. But with socio-cultural values shifting everywhere, these gendered forms are becoming less acceptable.

What does this mean for you? Well, unless your audience is specifically male or female oriented, the safest bet is to ask your translators to keep language as gender neutral as possible.

7. Don’t be surprised by ¿ or ¡

There are many quirky phenomena in the Spanish language, but perhaps the most unique — and perplexing if you’ve never seen it — is the use of an upside down question mark at the beginning of every question and an upside down exclamation mark at the beginning of every exclamation.

Unfortunately, many translated texts exclude these vital punctuation marks, either because they haven’t been put there in the first place or someone unfamiliar with the language has removed them. Either way, they are there for a reason — and it just doesn’t look professional if they are missing!

While we’re at it, a couple of other differences compared to English include using commas instead of points for decimal places and only capitalizing the first letter of the first word in titles. Now you know!

8. Minimize your pleases and thank yous

If your English-to-Spanish translation comes back with around 20% of your original pleases and thank yous, don’t think you’ve been swindled! Your translator isn’t being careless or taking creative liberties. In fact, it’s quite the opposite — it shows they’re doing their job because Spanish is less polite by default. Or let me put it this way, it does not need as many pleases and thank yous to denote the same level of politeness. If you leave them all in, you risk coming across as patronizing or inauthentic at best.

Your translators should already be taking these cultural differences into account, but it doesn’t hurt to remind them and explicitly give them permission to add or remove as much as is necessary to make the text fit within the local context.

9. Beware of false friends

No, we’re not asking you to rethink the company you keep (but feel free to do that on your own time!) If you don’t already know, false friends or falsos amigos are words that sound very similar in both languages, but that — against all logic — have very different meanings in each language.

Let’s see an example: embarrassed in English is very similar to embarazado or embarazada in Spanish. The problem is that the Spanish word has nothing to do with feelings of shame or awkwardness and everything to do with being pregnant! Yep, you can imagine the number of funny, confusing, and downright embarrassing (so meta!) situations this has led to in the history of English-Spanish relations. Just imagine a native English man saying “I am embarazado”. Well, he definitely will be embarrassed after saying that!

Other Spanish examples include sensible (means sensitive), actual (means current), bombero/a (means firefighter, not bomber!), and compromiso (means commitment).

So what do you do about these traps the language gods have set up for you? Well, you just need to be aware that false friends are common in Spanish. It’s your translator’s job to worry about these things, not yours, but it’s useful for you to know that deceptively similar words can mean very different things in another language.

10. If in doubt, just ask!

This applies to any language, but it’s really important! Remember that your Spanish translator is there to help you with any questions you might have. Something as simple as “Would this make sense in your country?” or “Is there a better way to get the message across?” can do wonders for the final Spanish text. Your translators are consultants as much as linguists, so just ask them what they think is best and trust their guidance.

Since we’re talking about the importance of communication with your Spanish translators… if you’re working with them on the Smartcat platform, remember that you can reach out to them via the chat or leave instructions and comments within the text editor.

¡Buena suerte!

So there you have it! Ten pointers to help you out in your English-to-Spanish translation ventures! What did you make of them?

If you’re worried that you won’t remember every point or even wondering why the hell you, the client, should be worrying about these things instead of the actual professionals doing the work, don't panic! You don’t have to remember it all and the translators should be taking this all into account anyway.

But if your particular struggle is not really knowing who to go to for your Spanish translations, then being aware of some of these basic points — and talking them over with any potential suitors — will be of great help in your search.

If this is where you are now, you can find the right English-to-Spanish translator for your business on Smartcat. There's hundreds to choose from depending on your needs — and now you know what to look for!

Good luck expanding into Spanish-speaking markets and feel free to drop any questions in the comments. We’ll be happy to help.