Spanish Translation for the U.S. Spanish Market: How Hard is It?

“Me gustan las tostadas con mantequilla de maní.” / “Me gusta el pan tostado con crema de cacahuate.”

Initially, it’s obvious to notice both sentences are written in Spanish; what’s less obvious is both sentences are basically expressing the same idea using different words.

The first sentence is from Puerto Rico, and the second one is from Mexico. A “tostada” in Puerto Rico refers to a slice of toast, whereas in Mexico it means a fried corn tortilla. “Mantequilla de maní” and “crema de cacahuate” are both terms to describe the most popular spread loved by U.S. school kids and many adults of all ages—peanut butter.

Simply stated, each sentence is an example of a different Spanish dialect.

Confusing, you may think.

Yet speakers of all Spanish-speaking nationalities in the U.S. can communicate with each other with very minimal intelligibility issues.

Even though there may be lexical differences between Spanish dialects, the basic structure of the Spanish language doesn’t change.

Now, for many non-linguists, a dialect is simply a less prestigious language spoken by a small community of people in any given part of the world.

However, from a linguistic stand point, a dialect is a variant of a language, regardless of its size or prestige.

During my Masters studies in Spanish Linguistics I came across a genius analogy to describe the linguistic relationship between dialects and language:

“If you walk into an ice cream store and simply order “ice cream,” the person behind the counter will not be able to serve you anything. This is because you did not specify which “flavor” you want. “Ice cream” is a generic concept, and while we can all agree, in a general sense, on what ice cream is, it really only exists and can only be consumed through its different flavors. Similarly, languages can only be spoken through their dialects. Dialects are like ice cream flavors; everyone speaks at least one of them.” Heritage Language Learning, p.14

To add to the complexity of dialects, national dialects can also be broken down into regional dialects based on social status, geographical areas, or ethnic groups.

In other words, every language–whether its Spanish, Russian, Italian, or French—will contain dialect variants of the language in its own country that may be imperceptible to non-locals.

For example, my husband, from Oaxaca, Mexico, can distinguish the Caribbean Spanish accent from any other Latin American Spanish accent, which for most Spanish speakers–or Latinos–the difference is flat-out obvious.

However, he can’t tell the difference between a Cuban accent and a Puerto Rican accent, where as someone from that region would find the differences to be very noticeable.

Now, would the complexity of the Spanish language make it a challenge for a Spanish translator catering to the U.S. Spanish market?

While you think about this question, let me give you some quick facts about the U.S. Spanish market–

Over half of the Spanish audience in the U.S. is of Mexican descent, although there are many Latinos that are of non-Mexican origin.

High concentrations of Latinos from the Caribbean and South America reside in major cities such as New York, Miami, and Chicago.

So, it’s evident that a marketing strategy that works really well in the Miami area may have to be tweaked if pursued in Los Angeles.

Nonetheless, many translation buyers want to reach out to the U.S. Spanish market as a whole, and as part of their marketing strategy, they request a translation into “neutral” Spanish that can be understood by all Latinos in the U.S.

Is that even possible?

Just recently Dmitry and Elena, the brains behind Translators on Air, interviewed Alexandra Durán, an ENG>SPAN translator based in Guatemala. Alexandra recently started working full-time for a translation agency and currently serves the U.S. Spanish market.

Dmitry and Elena asked Alexandra some great questions during the interview that I think need to be addressed with a bit more detail.

But before I get into that, let me share my opinion on whether or not a neutral Spanish language exists.

During the interview, Alexandra casually mentioned that a neutral dialect of Spanish was basically nonexistent and that her agency’s request to provide a “neutral” translation into U.S. Spanish was a very challenging task.

My take on it is quite different.

I believe a neutral Spanish does exist–it’s real, and it’s perfectly understandable to the U.S. Spanish community as a whole.

This is the formal Spanish used by news reporters, radio broadcasters, or anyone in the communications and marketing fields. It’s the best option for targeting everyone who speaks Spanish, regardless of where they are from.

It’s also the Spanish dialect used by middle and upper-class individuals who’ve had an opportunity to earn a formal education and study the language.

However, I can see how translating for the U.S. market can be a challenge for any translator whose only translation experience has been in Spanish localization for their own dialect.

Let’s now take a look at those questions Dmitry and Elena asked during the interview:

Dmitry–When people are reading something in Spanish, can they tell if what they are reading is neutral Spanish, or if it’s Spanish for a Mexican or Guatemalan audience?

If the Spanish used for translation was catered to the Mexican or Guatemalan audience, the answer is yes, but there are some factors to be considered.

Even if a translation is localized for the Guatemalan audience, that doesn’t mean it will be significantly different. There may be some lexicon that is mostly used in Guatemala, but for the most part, every Spanish speaker will understand it just fine.

The differences may be more evident if the translation uses a language register that caters to a more informal Spanish audience whether in Guatemala, for example, or in a certain region of the U.S.—like Chicago or New York.

The more casual or informal the register, the more a translation will rely on “slang” words or phrases that are locally used in conversations with friends or in more relaxed environments, which are most likely not common knowledge among all Latinos, unless they’ve traveled to that specific country or U.S. region and have had some experience with their culture and informal dialect.

However, when targeting the U.S. Spanish market, a neutral translation is preferred, and it’s not difficult to achieve.

ElenaThis request by your translation agency to provide a neutral variant that is virtually nonexistent, would it be perceived as unnatural by, say, a Mexican native speaker?

Before I share my reasons for disagreeing with Alexandra’s answer to this question, let me reiterate the fact that a neutral variant of the Spanish language does exist.

In my experience with meeting people from all parts of Latin America here in the U.S., I have seen a correlation between social status and the use of a neutral language, regardless of the country of origin.

This reality is not exclusive to Spanish—it’s a fact about every existing language in the world.

In addition, people in general, educated or not, have a sense of when to use what register depending on the situation they are in or the person they are speaking with.

I have also noticed that even though there may be Spanish speaking people in some communities—like in Los Angeles, for example—who may not speak a standard or highly recognized Spanish dialect, they’ll still be able to understand and benefit from a neutral Spanish translation for the U.S. Latino audience.

So, in answer to Elena’s question, a neutral translation into Spanish for the U.S. Spanish market would not be perceived as unnatural by the U.S. Spanish community–or any Latino anywhere in the world–unless the Spanish translation in question is, of course, not a well-written one.

With globalization being the norm and going at such a fast rate, Latinos, whether in the U.S. or abroad, are no longer in a language bubble that keeps them from experiencing and learning all the intricacies of other Spanish dialects that are different from their own.

It’s common practice for Latinos to watch TV, search the Internet, have the latest smartphone, and hence continually be exposed to the many differences of the Spanish language that are now common knowledge and not seen as weird or incorrect.

In general, U.S. Latinos are more open-minded when it comes to accepting all Spanish dialects—they learn to mingle with Spanish speakers from all over Latin America and with time embrace those differences that make each dialect special and unique.

Now, this is a one-of-a-kind experience that can only be achieved by living in the U.S.

For someone who’s never left his/her country, everyone else’s accent, grammar choices, or regional vocabulary may come across as weird and not the norm.

But when you leave your country and experience the richness of the Spanish culture else where–in this case, the U.S.– you learn to embrace those differences and appreciate what such diversity has to offer.

A word that may have been distinctive of a certain region in Colombia, for example, may now be a term that’s become well-known among U.S. Latinos, even if they don’t end up using it in their everyday lexicon.

So, translating for the U.S. Latino audience is not as bad as it seems.

But it may certainly seem more complicated and challenging for a Spanish translator living outside of the U.S.

Elena mentioned something important during the interview. “When you’re looking for someone to translate your marketing materials for, say, the Mexican market, you should probably pick someone familiar with the culture or with that Spanish variant.”

Kudos to you, Elena!

That would be the ideal, but it hardly ever happens.

Agencies that outsource their work and request a neutral Spanish in return are not necessarily thinking about their audience. They are mostly wanting to cut down on cost.

Alexandra mentioned how she normally has no information about her audience—that her job is to provide a neutral Spanish translation in return.

For a translator outside of the U.S., this request may be more of a challenge than for a translator based in the U.S.

But it’s certainly not impossible.

So, the conclusion?

Just like someone from Australia or England can understand an English speaker from the U.S. or New Zealand, the same happens with Spanish.

Yes, they may sound different, and each dialect has its own set of complexities that makes it unique, but it’s still the same language.

Likewise, in my experience with being Puerto Rican and currently living in the U.S., my word choices may seem funny or different to, say, my Mexican friends, but it’s still my native Spanish language–and that fact will never change.

Therefore, let’s not underestimate the level of understanding every U.S. Latino has of their own Spanish dialect and everyone else’s, regardless of their social status or the Spanish country they are from.

The U.S. Spanish audience will understand a Spanish translation that comes their way–neutral, or even with a Mexican or Caribbean flair–and will appreciate the message that’s being offered to them in their native language.

After all, it’s still Spanish.

Why would it be any different?


About the author:
Beverly Hayes is an ENG>SPAN professional translator specializing in translation & website localization in the following areas: social sciences, education, healthcare, marketing, & business. A mother of five, Beverly is the founder/owner of Spanish Connect Translations, a translation agency based in Rexburg, Idaho. She graduated from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah with a Bachelor’s degree in Clinical Laboratory Science, and this last December she finished her Master’s degree in Spanish Linguistics from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Being a stay-at-home mom for most of her life, Beverly has now taken upon herself a new goal–to contribute to the world in a different way by jumping on the entrepreneurship bandwagon. She has the education, the cultural background, and the writing skills that are necessary to succeed in this competitive field and provide a quality product that’ll stand out among the rest. You may visit her website at, or contact her via Twitter: MySpanConnect and email:

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