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Localizing for the Diverse ‘Latin American Spanish’ Market

By David Evseeff

The Spanish language has positioned itself as a vital part of international commerce. Spanish is ranked as the third most widely spoken language in the world (520 million), second to only Mandarin Chinese and English, and is considered the third most frequently used language online (344 million). Because of this presence, the language has almost become a necessary consideration for any business’s localization efforts.

The Spanish-speaking market in the United States alone has become too large to ignore, even for businesses and organizations without an international presence. The United States boasts a population of more the 41 million speakers of Spanish (age five or older – speaking Spanish at home), the second highest Spanish-speaking population in the world, next to only Mexico. When considering heritage and second language speakers, the United States’ population climbs to roughly 50 million.

As businesses and organizations seek to reach this massive market, they begin by seeking professional Spanish translation and localization services. From localizing web content into Spanish, providing Spanish translation and interpretation services for their Spanish-speaking employees, and staffing their organizations with bilingual staff to better serve their customers, there are a variety of needs to consider for the incorporation of Spanish language support in an organization’s overall business plans.

One of the key roadblocks faced by these businesses and organizations, whether pursuing Spanish localization for overseas markets in Latin America or right here in the United States, is selecting the variety or dialect of Spanish to use in order to best reach and engage with their intended audience. Like English, the Spanish language can vary greatly from region to region and is much more complex and nuanced than simply the divide between “Latin American Spanish” and “Castilian Spanish” (from Spain).

Throughout the 20 countries that recognize Spanish-speaking majorities, a number of important differences in phonology, syntax, and vocabulary can be found. For example, while the use of the second-person singular pronoun tú is used in much of Latin America, the voseo (use of vos as the second-personal singular pronoun) is also popular in Argentina/Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Central American Spanish (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and some parts of Mexico). In some places, the voseo is used almost exclusively, while in others it is used in conjunction with tú, such as in parts of Colombia.

While these differences in the use of the second-person singular pronoun can still be easily understood among different Spanish speakers, a significant amount of truly regional vocabulary can be much harder to understand, and some words even have entirely different meanings in different countries. For example, the word torta in Mexican Spanish refers to a sandwich, while it means “cake” in other regions. Speaking of “sandwich,” it can also be translated as sándwich, emparedado, sánduche, sánguche, or bocadillo, depending on the region. These are just a couple of examples of the many regional differences of Latin American Spanish.

Given this kind of disparity in Spanish usage, unless your localization campaign is specific to one particular country or region in Latin America, how can your organization localize your website or other content without having to create 20 different Spanish versions? Fortunately, there is an option.

While there can be significant variations between local/regional Spanish dialects, the written form of the language is more standard and conservative, often following the rules set out by the Real Academia Española (RAE), the organization founded in 1713 which regulates the Spanish language worldwide. In its written form, it is thus possible to provide a “universal” or “generic” Spanish translation or Spanish localization that will be readily understood regardless of the target audience. In the case of the word “sandwich” above, therefore, the Spanish translation sándwich or emparedado would be the most appropriate and widely understood, even if it doesn’t represent the most truly “localized” version in certain locales.

If you are looking to translate or localize your content into Spanish for various Latin American markets, be sure to discuss your specific needs and preferences with your language service provider (LSP) who can then work with you to determine the best course of action in terms of the type of Spanish translation or localization best fit to achieve your goals.

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