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Although we know that producing translations that are localized as specifically as possible can be fruitful, many people find it may not be realistic to have their project localized for all of the different varieties of Spanish spoken in different locales. In 2010, Spanish was ranked number two in terms of number of native speakers worldwide, falling second only to Mandarin.
There are many different countries with Spanish speakers, and oftentimes, a company may want to release its product to an audience that spans across many of these different locales. While each area has a different dialect and therefore could require specific changes in the finalized, localized product, it is not always within someone’s budget to go through this process each time for every locale, and therefore, may pose the question, “Is there a universal Spanish I can use? Something everyone will understand?” The answer to this is both “yes” and “no” and may also depend on the text.
Universal Spanish can be a challenge, given all the different local expressions and variations in the Spanish language. Specifically, it uses more generic terminology and avoids the use of colloquial and more informal phrases that vary from country to country. It also takes into account terminology and phrases that may be considered offensive in certain countries.
For universal Spanish, linguists disregard regional terms and local grammatical peculiarities and select the most generic language available. In doing so, there is no guarantee that the linguist won’t choose a term or phrase that is more commonly used in one area over another, despite its general neutrality. As a result, it’s common to hear feedback that the translation, although not incorrect, ‘doesn’t sound right’. In creating a language that sounds “somewhat right” to every Spanish speaker, it can end up sounding “somewhat wrong” in certain applications.
Universal Spanish is designed to be understood by the broadest audience possible, from Europe to South America and beyond. While this is achievable overall, readers can still falter on unfamiliar words. When creating neutral translations, certain grammar or vocabulary choices may be archaic or unfamiliar in other dialects. The effect of this can depend on the nature of the text. For example, the word durazno may be chosen for ‘peach’, since it’s the most widespread option used throughout Latin America. However, most Spaniards know it as melocotón. An unfamiliar word here might be inconsequential as a detail in a children’s story, but poses a bigger problem if appearing in a recipe. In cases like video games or subtitles where rapid comprehension is needed, these difficulties can be an obvious problem.
Universal Spanish is more of a concept than a language that’s actively used by a subgroup of people. One of the only places Universal Spanish is commonly used is in mass media and journalism, where the audience could be from anywhere in the world. It also tends to be a more academic form of the language, as it strips away many of the unique terms that associate a language with a place – not unlike English ‘legalese’ or other styles of technical writing.
Localized messages tend to resonate more with their audience. Universal Spanish is, by definition, not localized or targeted. As a result, it can sound impersonal or “stiff”. Marketing, advertising, and creative writing depend on emotive language, idioms and cultural references for optimal impact. Since Universal Spanish is stripped of these features, it doesn’t work well here, and casting too wide of a net in terms of language could leave you missing your intended audience entirely.
Depending on your content, Universal Spanish may work well. For example, it can be successfully applied to technical documents like manuals, software, business documents, or similar. However, be cautious with creative pieces – you will likely need to use a more localized Spanish dialect for maximum success.
Like English, highly educated Spanish is reasonably similar and major dialect differences are more apparent in informal language. In everyday speech, a translator might say currar for ‘to work’, sobar for ‘to go to bed’, and queli for ‘house’. But when addressing a broader audience, they would instantly switch to using trabajar, acostarse, and casa, all of which are more formal words. Hence the idea of universal Spanish — it’s not local everyday speech, but anyone educated can understand and produce it in formal situations.
Not everyone will agree that universal Spanish is viable or appropriate. Others argue that the concept of neutral Spanish is more effective on a smaller scale, such as for Latin America or for the US. In short, it is definitely possible to produce a translation and adapt it for a broader audience. While we recommend localizing whenever possible, sometimes we must adapt to the business realities of our clients, and it is not always feasible or necessary to write in multiple dialects. While a truly universal Spanish may not be the best or most natural sounding option, it does exist and can be used to lower costs in certain cases.
Although many companies are happy to use universal Spanish for cost saving reasons, we shouldn’t forget the benefits of localization. Keep in mind that the more generic the language, the less powerful it can potentially be. While generic language may work in some cases, it could miss the mark and have a significantly negative impact in others. Localization can be an extra cost, but it’s a front end investment that can result in better connections with your audience. Therefore, companies should consider defining the dialects that best fit their needs rather than defaulting to an artificial standard that may come at the expense of quality.
Let’s say you’ve done universal Spanish translations in the past and now have a similar new project that’s just for Spain. Since universal is understood by all, you might request this again to save money by leveraging previous translations. It’s true that this would be cheaper than translating from scratch for Spain. However, you would still be left with an impersonal translation that isn’t adapted to your new audience. The good news is, it’s still possible to save money by leveraging past content and having it fine-tuned to suit your specific audience. Ask your provider about editing services for the content in your translation memory.