Universal Spanish Translations

We are often asked to provide Spanish translations that can be used worldwide. Some may call this “Neutral Spanish” or “International Spanish” or “Global Spanish”. Of course, we work with translators who have lots of experience with this type of request. And these translators have developed the skill to create translations that are as neutral as possible. This is especially useful in technical or business documentation.

That said, let’s look at

  1. what “Universal Spanish” is,
  2. when it makes sense to use it, and
  3. when it is advisable to opt for more fine-grained localizations.


Is there a Universal English?

Just to set the stage – ask yourself if a Universal English exists. There are well-known vocabulary differences between British and American English. Think of trunk vs. boot or pants vs. trousers. The two dialects have clearly distinguishable spoken accents as well. And you can immediately place a text if you see center or centre. Now, is it possible to dub a movie that works equally well on both sides of the Atlantic? Sure – people will be able to understand everything, but the actors would either sound American or British. There is no in-between pronunciation. And a written text will follow either the American spelling conventions or the British. Again, there is no middle ground. Likewise for vocabulary choices.

Is there a Universal Spanish?

Like English, Spanish exists in geographic regions. Conditions on the ground do influence how people speak. Differences in flora, fauna, weather patterns or contact with indigenous languages introduce new words into the language. The mix of people will impact the way they pronounce words. And some groups of speakers may choose to modify the language’s grammar in one way, while other groups make other choices. So, it is only reasonable to expect differences in vocabulary, pronunciation, and even grammar. Yet, it is easy to find persons who will tell you with conviction that their dialect is “the most neutral”. Depending on where they are from, this may be Madrid Spanish, Mexican Spanish, Colombian, Peruvian, or what-have-you.

Do mass media create a global standard?

Yes, mass media have a tendency to smooth out differences. But even news media cannot free themselves completely from regional effects. At this time, four main standard dialects can be identified (source: Wikipedia: Standard Spanish):

  1. Castilian or Peninsular Spanish for Spain
  2. River Plate Spanish for Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina
  3. Mexican Spanish for the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America
  4. Spanish of international organisations

Note that these are spoken variants. Just as in the case of American vs. British English, there is simply no way to avoid some regional identifiability of a speaker. For written Spanish, the differences are much less pronounced, if you pardon the pun. Here, we call these “Iberian Spanish”, “Latin American Spanish”, “Mexican Spanish”, and “Universal Spanish”, respectively. The following applies to translation of written texts.

When does it make sense to translate into a “neutral” dialect?

Well, whenever your texts cover a “neutral” subject. This will apply to most academic, technical, or business texts. They have in common that they do not address the reader directly. They maintain an objective distance to their content. They talk about things that are clearly  defined and typically not part of everyday life. It is pretty unlikely that a parts catalog with information about pipe fittings will have much room for regional variation. And even if some region prefers an unusual term for some widget, it is improbable that this leads to problems with understanding. Also, readers of technical manuals are not likely to be put off by some minor lack of specific regional targeting.

When does it make sense to go local?

Many text forms speak directly to the reader. These include instructions, casual-sounding informative writings or slides, marketing material. Here you need to be aware that there are different personal pronouns used in various regions. While singular you typically translates as , some American countries use vos instead, most notably Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay (see Wikipedia: Voseo). Furthermore, Spanish makes a distinction between informal (tú/vos) and formal (usted) address. The exact usage also differs regionally as well as depending on the social setting.

When your texts leave the realm of the abstract or technical and focus on everyday life, you might encounter strong regional differences. If your text uses casual dialog, utterances might contain slangy expressions that are best conveyed with clearly regionalized translations. As far as vocabulary is concerned, the strongest differences show up in food items. Certainly, regional dishes will have regional names, but also common food items may have different names. For example, potato is mostly papa but patata in Spain. Pineapple is usually piña, but ananá in Uruguay and Argentina. A peach is a melocotón in Spain, but a durazno everywhere else. Items used in everyday life are subject to regional preferences. A computer is translated as ordenador in Spain, but as computador elsewhere. It depends on where you are how you say that you want to take your car (see Google Trends, retrieved 2019-03-01):

Different regional translations for "car" are a problem for a Universal Spanish translation

Preferred Spanish translations for “car” in different regions

Refrigerator is an even nicer example of regional fragmentation (see Google Trends, retrieved 2019-03-01):

Different regional translations for "refrigerator" are a problem for a Universal Spanish translation

Preferred Spanish translations for “refrigerator” in different regions

So, the more you talk about everyday life in your texts, the more likely you need to adapt the translations to specific regions.

Do I need to translate for every region?

Not necessarily. In many cases, it may make sense to start with a ‘neutral’ translation. Then you could show it to in-country reviewers in your target markets to see if they would change anything. If you are lucky, they accept it as is. Or they may suggest tweaks to the text that are  much less work than translating from scratch. Thus, a “neutral” translation can be used as the basis for more specific localizations. Editing a document is much cheaper than translating the whole thing. Of course, you would need to weigh the time it takes to review and edit (which would all happen after translation) vs. the cost of multiple full translations in parallel. With short texts or particularly urgent translations, the latter may make more sense.

See also:

Slideshare: PowerPoint slides on Universal Spanish Translations

YouTube: Narrated presentation on Universal Spanish translations

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