Translating From English to Spanish: Common Challenges

Translating from one language to another requires extensive knowledge of both grammar and culture. Professional translators must know the rules of a language as well as the habits of the people who speak it. However, every language pair presents its unique difficulties and can create confusion and frustration even for the most experienced linguist.

English-to-Spanish is one of the most translated language pairs of the world, mainly due to the business opportunities in Spanish speaking countries but also within the Spanish population living in the United States of America.

In the following article, we are going to point out the differences between the languages and the common challenges faced by English-to-Spanish translators.

Different Origins

Both languages belong to the Indo-European family, but while English is a West Germanic language that originated from Anglo-Frisian dialects, Spanish is a Western Romance language that derives from Latin.

English has been influenced mainly by Scandinavians who conquered Britain during the 8th and 9th centuries and then by the Normans, who spoke a romance language called Old Norman. It came to be exported to other parts of the world through British colonization, and later on, with the rise of the United States, it took the status of a global lingua franca. Today 1 out 6 people in the world speak English, and it is the official language of 54 countries.

Spanish developed in the north-center of the Iberian Peninsula and during the 16th century, when Spain became the world’s first global superpower, it spread across the Philippines and Latin America. Nowadays it is the second most spoken language in the world with almost 500 million speakers (second to Mandarin Chinese).


Despite using the same sentence structure — Subject-verb-object — Spanish grammar rules are often softer and feature more syntactic freedom than English. In English, it is often more common to use shorter and concise sentences, while in Spanish they tend to be longer and usually subordinated. However, the syntax is just the tip of the iceberg. Differences between the languages can also be found in vocabulary, verbs, punctuation marks, and so on.

Verbs:  Verb conjugation in English is altered by adding suffixes (such as ing for continuous forms or gerunds, and ed for the past tense), whereas, in Spanish, each tense has six different spellings, depending on the subject.

Adjectives: As a rule of thumb, adjectives in Spanish come after the noun, but before the noun in English. On a more general perspective, the use of adjectives seems to be more restricted in Spanish, but the greater syntactic freedom and the number and gender markings makes translating regular adjectives from English a great challenge.

Punctuation marks: Attention to detail is what makes for a quality translation, and there are some that can’t go unnoticed, such as punctuation marks. Leaving aside the use of opening question and exclamation marks, there are some differences in punctuation between the languages, such as where to place them when using quotation marks or parenthesis. Contrary to English, the punctuation marks in Spanish must be located outside of these symbols.

Grammatical Gender in Spanish

The fact that inanimate objects (nouns) have a lexical gender in Spanish does not mean that things like chairs and tables are physically feminine or masculine. They have genders in a grammatical sense and must be used with articles and adjectives that match their gender.

The use of gender concerning objects could become an obstacle when translating from English to Spanish. English doesn’t differentiate objects by gender, so translators would need to be very careful and fluent in Spanish to avoid confusion in this matter.

The use of grammatical gender in Spanish also counts in the plural form.

Spanish is Wordier than English, but Spoken Faster

Expansion and contraction are two common concepts in translation and refer to the phenomenon in which a document gets longer or shorter after being translated into a different language. On average, a document in Spanish is 20 – 30% longer than its equivalent in English, mainly because expressing ideas in Spanish requires more words. This means a 3000-word book in English will typically be 3500 or 4000 words in Spanish.

However, Spanish is spoken at 7.82 syllables per second, whereas English is spoken at 6.19. For this reason, even if a Spanish translation is longer than its English equivalent, reading the two documents takes the same amount of time in a spoken context.

Language Nuances

English is the most spoken language worldwide, but there isn’t just one universal version of English. Each country has its variety: there is British English, American English, Australian English, Canadian English, Irish English, New Zealand English and so on. Each of these versions has its own cultural traits which means they have different linguistic expressions to refer to the same things and even different meanings for the same words. For instance, Brits call the front of a car the bonnet, while Americans call it the hood. Learning to speak both the language and the culture takes practice, and translators should be fully aware of the English version they are working with.

And the same goes for Spanish. There are differences between the Spanish spoken in Spain and Latin America, but there are also differences between the types of Spanish spoken in different countries of Latin America, and in different regions of Spain as well. For example, a pen is boligrafo in Spain but lápiz pasta in Chile, lapicera in Argentina and so on.

Translators must make an effort to understand the target audience and adapt their translation to the specific version of Spanish they speak.

Using Context to Resolve Ambiguities

Many languages suffer from ambiguity, which is when words have more than one meaning and can be translated in multiple different ways. Let’s take for instance the word squash:

1- It refers to a family of vegetables. In Spanish, it would be translated as calabacín.

2- Squash is also a sport played with rackets and a ball. In Spanish, it would be translated as squash.

3- To compress or destroy it with pressure. In Spanish we say aplastar.

So how can translators know which translation they need to use? Words in a document are not present in isolation but interact with other words and with the whole text at large. This interaction among words determines their meaning rather than its isolated meaning. Therefore, the key to solving this issue is to provide the translator with a linguistic context, which requires making clear the entire setting in which that word is stated.

Translating without proper linguistic context will frustrate even the most experienced translator, and lead to potential errors in the final document.

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