English to Spanish Translation—Learn Which Spanish Is Best for Your Audience

Because it is one of the world’s most popular languages, Spanish presents huge opportunities to reach new audiences with translated materials. Spoken by over a half-billion people, Spanish is a rich, expressive language with an extensive geographic reach. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations and has been designated as an official language of 21 countries. The U.S. has the second-largest Spanish-speaking population in the world (after Mexico), with 41 million people ages five or older who speak Spanish at home.

However, because it is such a diverse language, it can be unclear how to approach translation. The Spanish language has different written and spoken variants, and it may be difficult to determine which form is best for your audience. Of course, a translated message should always sound as natural as possible to readers. It should be smooth and comfortable, like the language they might use at home. But at the same time, you may need to reach a wider audience of Spanish speakers. How do you know which form of Spanish is best? In this article, we shed some light on the differences between Spanish variants and offer tips to help you plan your Spanish-language translation strategy.

the origins of the Spanish language

Like other Romance languages, Spanish is a descendant of the informal form of Latin spoken in the Roman Empire. In the 3rd century BC, the Romans conquered the Iberian Peninsula (comprising present-day Spain and Portugal), bringing with them their language. The Arabic-speaking Moors later invaded the region, adding Arabic influences to the developing language. Over the centuries, Spanish continued to evolve on the Iberian Peninsula before making its leap across the ocean.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus and those who followed brought the language to the Americas, where it was propagated by the Spanish colonizers. Latin-American Spanish began developing independently of the Spanish spoken in Spain. Today, there are significant differences in the ways the languages are expressed, both in the written and spoken forms.

LATAM versus European (or Peninsular) Spanish

The two most distinctive strains of the modern-day language are Spanish for Spain (also referred to as Castilian, European, or Peninsular Spanish) and Latin-American Spanish (LATAM). The differences, while important, are not enough to prevent communication. People from Spain can understand people from Latin American countries. However, it just doesn’t sound natural, much in the same way British English does not sound natural to an American.

Spanish speakers on both sides of the ocean take pride in their language and cultures. Naturally, when translating materials for Europeans, Spanish for Spain would be used. Likewise, a version of LATAM Spanish would be selected when translating for Latin-American audiences.

The key differences between Spanish for Spain and LATAM Spanish are outlined below.

the plural version of you: vosotros vs. ustedes

One of the most obvious differences between Spanish for Spain and LATAM Spanish is pronoun usage. Spanish second-person pronouns have different levels of formality, and the means of addressing people can vary depending on location and dialect.

Spanish has three words for “you” in the singular, with varying degrees of formality: vos and usted. The plural forms of these pronouns are vosotros (casual) and ustedes (formal). In Spain, you can choose either vosotros or ustedes when addressing two or more people, depending on the degree of formality, respect, and context. However, vosotros is not used in LATAM Spanish. There, only ustedes is used as the plural form of “you,” even in casual situations.

vos and usted

The singular form of “you” is also handled differently across the ocean. In Spain, (casual) is used in most situations, while usted (formal) is strictly reserved for formal situations. It’s a little different in LATAM Spanish, where is strictly reserved for friends and family, and the usage of usted is much more common. However, vos has been traditionally used instead of , in Argentina and Uruguay where people speak a variety called Rioplatense Spanish or River Plate Spanish. Vos is also used by Paraguayans, Chileans, Peruvians, Ecuadorians, Salvadorans, and some Colombians.

simple past versus present perfect

Spanish for Spain and LATAM differ in the way they describe the past. A quick grammar lesson: simple past and present perfect both refer to events that happened in the past. Simple past is used to describe things that happened at any point in the past, such as I completed the project or She walked the dog. Alternately, present perfect refers to something that happened or began in the past, but whose effects continue into the present. Now that Jane has completed the project, she can walk the dog. (That is, she completed the project, so now she has time to walk the dog.)

In Spain, people prefer to use the present perfect tense when describing recent actions. In Latin America, however, the more direct form of speaking is preferred, and simple past tense is more commonly used. When a friend says “¡Comamos!” (Let’s go eat!), someone from Latin America might reply, “No, ya comí.” (No, I already ate.) In Spain, they would be more apt to say, “No, ya he comido.” (No, I have already eaten.)

wildly divergent vocabularies

Each Spanish-speaking country has its own slang and makes up its own rules when it comes to vocabulary. Even within Latin America, totally different words sometimes mean the same thing. Certain words are different in every country. Others might be used consistently, with the exception of one or two locales. In LATAM Spanish, “cake” is pastel, but in Spain, you would go to the bakery and order a torta. Of course, in Mexico, the word torta refers to a sandwich. While pastel is the neutral LATAM term for cake, there are plenty of different terms used throughout Latin America. Ponqué is the Colombian word for cake, kéi is used in Cuba, bizcocho in the Dominican Republic, queque in Perú, and torta in Argentina. Throughout the Spanish-speaking world, there are countless such examples.

Spanish in the Americas

Even though Spanish was born in Europe, Latin Americans have developed their own form of the language, and they represent the vast majority of Spanish speakers on the planet today. However, even throughout the LATAM-speaking Americas, individual countries have their own flavor of the language, with differences in vocabulary, grammatical features, and pronunciation.

Despite the differences, any Latin American country’s dialect will sound more natural to other LATAM speakers than will Spanish for Spain. People throughout the Americas share more common cultural elements. They are more likely to watch Mexican telenovelas, listen to Colombian rock, or read Argentinian novels, rather than consume TV, music, and literature from Spain. Popular culture influences the way people across Latin-American countries communicate and understand each other.

LATAM: selecting the right Spanish for translation

When translating for a general audience of Latin-American Spanish speakers, neutral LATAM Spanish is often recommended. The neutral (universal) form of LATAM does not use Spanish words that are specific to any one country. It avoids colloquialisms. When spoken, it is expressed with a neutral accent that is similar to what is used in TV dubbing, commercials, news, and movies. “Universal Spanish” diction is even taught at a school in Miami, for people aspiring to work at Latin-American media companies like Univisión or Telemundo.

In translation, it’s true that a localized message with regional nuances will resonate well with a specific audience. However, when you must reach a wide audience of Spanish speakers originating in different locales, the non-localized version is the most practical.

When translating for Spanish speakers in the U.S., we advise U.S. Spanish, which is similar to neutral LATAM Spanish, but uses U.S. units of measurement and conventions for punctuation to make it more familiar to U.S. audiences. It also avoids the most obvious colloquialisms and sticks to the Spanish terminology that is most commonly used in the U.S.

  • Dating conventions typically follow the U.S. format, MM/DD/YYY, whereas the rest of Latin America (and most of the world) uses DD/MM/YYYY.
  • U.S. Spanish uses commas to separate groups of thousands, as opposed to decimal points, which are the standard in Latin America.
  • In U.S. Spanish, certain familiar words will be kept in English, such as smartphone, PC, or streaming, whereas in LATAM Spanish, these words are typically translated.

U.S. Spanish and LATAM will not sound totally natural to people from all Spanish-speaking countries. However, the message will be understood by all Spanish speakers. For this reason, these variants are the most inclusive choice for the majority of U.S. communities.

the right Spanish for your audiences

Despite the many variants, translating for Spanish speakers does not have to be a daunting task. Here are some key pieces of advice to keep in mind:

  • Always aim to make your message sound natural to people living in your target locale.
  • When you must reach a wide audience of Spanish speakers originating in different locales, a non-localized, neutral variant is the most practical.
  • However, when targeting a highly specific audience, consider a localized message that includes regional nuance.

Work closely with your translation company, and discuss your audience and intent. A good translation agency will help you pinpoint the right form of Spanish for your audience.

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