Spanish translation in the United States

Spanish Translation in the United States

So I was cleaning out my old computer the other day going through old files from school and ran across this research paper I wrote for an upper-level English class. The premise of the paper is that Spanish is the hardest language to translate in the United States.

Pretty presumptuous, I know, but I think I do raise some interesting points.

Spanish Translation in the United States

The United States has became very much culturally diversified throughout its history. Many people from many different cultures have immigrated to this country and in doing so, have created a linguistically diverse nation. This cultural assimilation in the United States has been especially prominent with regards to the Spanish-speaking population.

Due to the increase of the Spanish-speaking population in the United States, the field of translation has become a very large business. Along with the growth of the Spanish/English translation sector has come increased difficulties in the very practice. These particular difficulties that have arisen have caused the Spanish/English pair in the United States to be one if not the hardest language pair to translate. Many factors are responsible for the difficulty of Spanish/English translation in the United States. In this paper I will discuss what I see as some of the more important factors contributing to the difficulty of Spanish/English translation.

There are many languages spoken within the borders of the United States. However, the one language other than English that has become increasingly important in our society is Spanish. Hispanics form the largest immigrant group in the United States (González, 1996). In order to provide for the increasing number of Hispanics that are coming to the United States, Spanish/English translation has become more and more important. The importance of the Spanish language in the United States can be seen in a recent report cited by González. The report points out that Spanish is studied by more than 6 million students in the United States and is chosen by a majority of high school students (57.8%) (1996).

In contrast to popular belief, Spanish/English translation is possibly the hardest language pair to work in with regards to translation within the United States. Why should this be? If so many people study and speak the two languages, what can possibly cause the translation between these two languages to me so difficult? The purpose of this paper is to look at some of the most important factors that have contributed to Spanish/English translation being the most difficult language pair to translate in the United States.


Many factors account for the reason why the Spanish/English language pair is one of the hardest to translate between in the United States. While previous research has tended to present vague discussions of general problems dealing with translation, I will focus on factors that have to do with the difficulty of Spanish/English translation in the United States. Following is a list of factors that contribute to the above-mentioned problem.

General Linguistic Problems

One of the problems that translators face when translating from English to Spanish is that of syntactic ambiguity (Orta, 1987). Syntactic ambiguity occurs when the meaning of a sentence is not concrete; usually it can have one or more meanings, depending on how the interpretation is to be made. This problem of syntactic ambiguity can pose a serious problem for translators because they are faced with the challenge of transferring meaning across languages and if the meaning is unclear due to ambiguity, they must figure out how to resolve it. In his article, Orta gives an example of syntactic ambiguity using the sentence The biologist was studying winged ants and fleas. (1987). When a Spanish translator faces a sentence such as this one, he/she must first recognize that ambiguity exists and then decide how to best transfer that ambiguity over to the target language (Spanish). Thus, we can see that syntactic ambiguity does pose a problem to the Spanish/English translator.

Another area of difficulty for the Spanish/English translator is homography (Rabadán and Guzmán, 1987). Homography occurs when words have the same spelling but they have different meanings and possible different phonetic properties. Homographs are more frequent in English than they are in Spanish and while this fact might not pose a problem to translators who translate technical texts, it can pose a problem to literary translators who must try and keep not only the meaning the same but also must try to keep the similarity in the form of the text.

While the above problem poses more of a problem for Spanish/English literary translators, other groups of problems pose problems for the technical translator. One of the major problems with Spanish/English translation is that “English constitutes the primary vehicle of communication in the fields of science and technology” (Mas, Salom, Pastor, & Fleta, 1987).

Even though English is the most widely used language in technical texts, the technical terms rarely pose any difficulty for the qualified translator. The reason that these terms do not often present problems for the translator is because many of the terms are comprised of greek and latin roots, and many of the words have been incorporated into the Spanish language (Mas et al., 1987).

However, the problem that exists for Spanish/English technical translators is that not all of the words in a technical text are technical. In a statistical analysis done by Mas, it was found out that in an example technical text, only 21% of the words were technical, 70% were sub-technical, and 9% were functional words. (Semi-technical words are “those words whose use is not confined to scientific or technological contexts and which are an essential part of technical English” (Mas et al., 1987).

The reason, then, that technical texts present a problem for Spanish/English translators is because of the semi-technical words that appear in the text. In the words of A. J. Herbert, “much more difficult are the semi-scientific or semi-technical words, which have a whole range of meanings and are frequently used idiomatically… Words such as ‘work’, ‘plant’, ‘load’, ‘feed’, and ‘force’ look harmless but they can cause a lot of problems” (Mas et al., 1987). We can see from these examples that the problems of Spanish/English translation are not merely limited to genres of creative writing or literature, but also to technical and scientific texts.

Varieties of Spanish

In addition to general linguistic problems that exist in Spanish/English translation, another important factor contributing to its difficulty is the variety of Spanish that exists within the United States.

First, in order to understand the varieties of culture and language that exist among Spanish speakers in the United States, we must first realize that Latin America must not be considered as one culture with one language. In his article, Francisco Fernández points out some of the linguistic divisions that have been assumed by researchers to exist in Latin America. The following table represents these findings (Fernández, 1993).

Linguistic Variation in Latin America
AuthorNumber of ZonesDate
Juan Ignacio de Armas y Céspedes41882
Pedro Henríquez Ureña51921
José Pedro Rona161964
Juan C. Zamora Munné91980
Philippe Cahuzac41980

The reason the findings presented above are important is because the United States has typically not been considered part of Latin America. However, the United States has the highest number of Spanish speakers second only to Mexico and there are more Hispanics in Los Angeles than anywhere in the world except for Mexico City. Thus we can see that the variety of Spanish spoken is just as great as the variations that exist in Central and South America.

Hispanics have immigrated to the United States from every Spanish-speaking country and have settled in every state from Vermont (with its 3,000 Hispanics in 1980) to California (with its 4.5 million in 1980). According to population calculations, 47 million Hispanics will be living in the United States by the year 2020. (Ramírez, 1992).

The above figures are important to our discussion of translation because translation is not just the transmission of words from one language to another. Translation is the transfer of one culture to another through words (Castro-Paniagua, 2000).

Just because somebody’s native language is a certain language does not mean that they share the same culture as someone else who shares their native language. This is especially true with Hispanics where nationalistic pride is very strong. Since there are so many Hispanics living within the borders of the United States and they come from all the countries of Latin America, translation becomes a difficult task in terms of translating cultural peculiarities.

For example, one Latin American culture will have words that mean something else in another Latin America culture. The problem this poses to the translator is deciding which word to use that will best fit the context of the translation and will allow the most people possible understand the meaning of the text.

For this reason, translators must be able to step outside their particular culture or even the culture they are translating into. Cultural knowledge of differences that exist must be taken into account by the translator (Robinson, 1997). Translators must be aware of all the different “Spanish” cultures that are to be benefited by the translation.

English Encroachment

Another factor that causes Spanish translation to be one of the most difficult languages to translate in the United States is the encroachment of English on Spanish in the United States. This factor goes along with the one above mentioned but here I will treat it as a separate category.

Both English and Spanish are languages that allow the abundant use of loanwords to enter into their respective lexicons. American English has probably the the greatest number of words of any language (around 750,000) and about half of these words have entered the lexicon through the process of borrowing (González, 1996). A significant amount of the borrowing that has occurred has come from Spanish and this can cause problems for the Spanish/English translator.

The reason that this phenomenon of borrowing can cause problems for the translator in the United States is because many words that are borrowed into the lexicon are often replacements that make it easier for the speaker to know the specific term. The translator then must decide if he/she should use the loanword which has been borrowed or revert to a word which has not been borrowed but which might possibly present increased difficulty to the one who is to be benefited by the translation. Following is a brief account by Mordecai Schreiber that demonstrates this problem of English influences on Spanish.

About eighteen years ago I sponsored a 17-year-old woman from El Salvador to come to the U.S. and work for me. She has been living here ever since, got married, had three children, and has learned to speak English quite well. What I have found both fascinating and disturbing has been the evolution of her native language, along with that of her husband, relatives, and friends. Over time, common everyday objects have lost their Spanish names and took on American-English, or rather Spanglish names. Thus, a can of spray, rocío in Spanish, became espray. A drill, a taladro in Spanish, became simply drill, with a rolled “r.” In effect, our local Salvadorean community, which has grown in the past eighteen years from a few hundreds to a few thousands, has now developed a whole new dialect of Salvadorean-Washington Spanish.” (Date Unknown)

As can be seen from this example, the translator not only has to worry about the cultures he/she is working with but also has to keep in mind the problems that arise due to English influence on Spanish words.


Spanish/English translation in the United States is becoming an ever-increasing industry due to the number of Spanish speakers in the country. Along with the increase of translation in this language pair, there has been an increase in the difficulties. of translating Spanish for a variety of reasons. This paper has looked at some of the factors that contribute to Spanish being the most difficult language to translate in the United States and points out some of the steps that need to be taken to ensure that Spanish translation does not become even more difficult as the number of Spanish speakers continues to grow. In order to understand the many complexities that cause Spanish/English translation to be so difficult, more research must be focused towards this area with more attention being focused on specific factors rather than general problems that occur in translation.

Works Cited

  • Francisco Castro-Paniagua, English-Spanish Translation, Through a Cross-Cultural Interpretation Approach (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America) 2000.
  • Francisco Moreno Fernández, La División Dialectal del Español de América (Alcalá de Henares) 1993.
  • Félix Rodríguez González, Spanish Loanwords in the English Language: A tendency towards Hegemony Reversal (Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter) 1996.
  • Lourdes Aznar Mas, Luz Gil Salom, María Asunción Jaime Pastor, and Begoña Montero Fleta, “Algunos problemas en la traducción al inglés del lenguaje científico,” Asociación Española de Estudios Anglonorteamericanos, 11, (1987): 25-31.
  • Ignacio Vázquez Orta, “Problemas prácticos de traducción,” Asociación Española de Estudios Anglonorteamericanos, 11, (1987): 207-215.
  • Rosa Rabadán and Trinidad Guzmán, “Las inequivalencias lingísticas en la traducción ingles-español,” Asociación Española de Estudios Anglonorteamericanos, 11, (1987): 141-145.
  • Arunlfo Ramírez, El Español de los Estado Unidos: El lenguaje de los hispanos (Madrid, Spain: Editorial MAPFRE) 1992.
  • Douglas Robinson, Becoming a Translator (New York, New York: Routledge) 1997.
  • Mordecai Schreiber, The View from the Translation Agency: Spanish Translation in the U.S. – A Translator’s Dream or Nightmare? (Schreiber Publishing, Inc.) Date Unknown.

P.S. For information on how to become a successful translator, be sure to check out my book.

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