Universal Spanish: Is There Such a Thing in Translation?

Translation Services

With over 42 million native Spanish speakers currently residing in the United States, it’s no wonder that Spanish is one of the most common languages our translation teams handle.

But Spanish isn’t just one giant universal language fully understood by the roughly 500 million people across the globe who speak it.

There are 7 major Spanish dialects throughout the world, in places such as Spain, Mexico, Central America, South America, and even in the Philippines and Equatorial Guinea.

If you plan to launch a product to an audience or open new offices in several of these locales, it can be daunting to know how to translate your documents and digital content.

Should you produce multiple Spanish translations for different dialects? Or just one and hope for the best?

We know you want to connect with your Spanish-speaking audience while still staying within budget. So, you might pose the question, “Is there a universal Spanish I can use? Something everyone will understand?”

The answer to this is both “yes” and “no”. It may also depend on the text itself. But we can provide some tips to make sure you know how to best approach this task with a more neutral version of the language in mind.

Do the variations of Spanish dialects really make a difference?

To understand whether or not choosing the correct dialect(s) will have an impact on your company’s translations, you should first know what a language dialect even is. In this case, a language dialect is a form of that language that is particular to a specific region or social group:

Your audience may speak only one dialect or several, so knowing which dialect(s) to pursue in translation can really make a difference in the overall quality of your translated materials and their readability once they reach your consumers.

When deciding how important this is for you, consider the language you are reading right now.

Even the nuances of English can be difficult enough for many of us. There are words or phrases that are only common in the United States and others that you would only hear in Australia or the UK, for example.

American English at State has put together several illustrations of some of the differences between British and American English, but you can see here that there may be some confusion if you use these terms for the wrong audience.

Although you would likely be able to communicate well enough with someone from the U.K. to hold a functional conversation, you’d also likely run into some linguistic snags along the way, causing confusion for you both. Would your U.S.-based audience understand what a “lorry” is if you were to include in your materials, for example? Not likely.

In fact, you can even break down these nuances to specific regions within the same country. The dialects spoken in the northeastern United States sound quite different from those in Appalachia, for example.

The same holds true for your Spanish-speaking customers. If a translation is handled with just one dialect in mind, but your audience is from several different regions, you’re likely to cause some confusion for (and possibly risk offending) those who do not speak that particular Spanish variety.

How do I know which dialect my audience speaks?

To know which dialect your audience speaks, you’ll need to make sure you know where they’re from. Many different countries speak Spanish primarily, so the more you know about your intended audience, the better.

If you plan to market your products or services in just one particular country abroad, then knowing which dialect your audience speaks is more straightforward. If you plan to expand only within Mexico, for example, you’ll need just one Spanish translation, and your content can be translated specifically with a Mexican audience and dialect in mind.

If you wish to translate materials for multiple countries, it’s best to provide a list of those countries to your translation provider. They will be able to help you decide if you need to produce multiple versions of the translations for the different regions, or if a more neutral variety of the language can work for everyone.

If you aim to target Spanish-speaking consumers in the U.S. instead of abroad, make note of this for your translation provider as well. If you know where in the U.S. your customers reside, even better. The translation provider will work with you to determine which Spanish dialect(s) is (are) most commonly spoken in these areas to help provide the best possible translation for you and your customers.

How to handle Spanish translations when you don’t have the budget for multiple versions of a translation

While there’s no doubt that different dialects exist, and therefore, specific changes to the final localized product may be necessary, it is not always within your company’s budget to go through this process for every locale.

Even though there may not be an official “Universal Spanish” dialect, there are certainly terms and phrases that are considered more “neutral” without the influence of local jargon or slang.

The Real Academia Española, for example, strives to provide terms that are recognized by speakers of various dialects and does well to provide the standard definitions of words, as well as their various possible colloquial meanings, which may vary by country or region.

This means that, as long as your audiences resides in a similar region or area, you should be able to apply a more universal or neutral Spanish to your translation without much issue, depending on the content.

However, if your target audiences reside in both Latin America and Spain, you’ll likely find that there are too many differences between the dialects within Latin America and Europe for this to be possible. In this particular case, we would recommend producing two different translations for these two very distinct audiences.

Are there risks to using a more neutral Spanish?

If you are able to produce specific and localized translations for the different Spanish-speaking locales you plan to target, it can certainly be fruitful for your company. Customers will be able to tell that your content was created with them in mind specifically, as opposed to being shared across multiple audiences.

However, we understand it is not always within a company’s budget to take these steps. If you and your translation provider have decided to use a translation team that can produce a more neutral Spanish translation that is more easily understood by a wider audience, your provider will work with an experienced team of linguists who is able to provide this for you.

Nevertheless, it is still noteworthy to mention that the translators and editors of your content are influenced by their own respective countries and locales, which can inadvertently impact a word choice for even the most skilled linguist. This is another reason why having a professional team is so important. They will work together to provide the most neutral Spanish possible, and a skilled team will provide a rendition of the text with terms that are understood as widely as possible.

There is always the potential that someone will read a translated word or phrase and not immediately recognize it as one they would use in their own dialect, but typically, context allows one to perceive the intended meaning.

If your budget allows for it later on, you may also consider asking your translation provider to partner with an in-country reviser or editor. This editor can review your current translation and point out if some of the more neutral terms sound awkward or out of place in that particular region. This will allow you to implement any necessary changes without reworking the entire translation from scratch for each region.

While localizing your translations for each distinct locale you plan to target is certainly ideal when you’re able to do so, it is definitely possible to translate a text and localize it for a more neutral Spanish overall. However, in doing so, there is no guarantee that the language team will not choose a term or phrase that is more commonly used in one area over another, despite its general universality.

If you know that your target audience is specific to a few locales, it is best to let your translation project manager know so that he or she can ensure the finalized product is best suited for your needs. It may be the case that your text is better suited to a specific area, rather than trying to remain universal.

Here at ATS, we understand that you may have questions about your upcoming translation projects before you get started. If you’d like to chat, we are happy to answer any questions you may have, as well as provide a quote for your upcoming projects. We look forward to hearing from you!

Skip to content