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I'm a Professional Translator, Here Are the Top 10 Errors You're Making When Translating Spanish to English

by Barbara Rumi Jan 18, 2016

KNOWING HOW TO SPEAK BOTH English and Spanish is not the same thing as knowing how to translate from English to Spanish. Translation is not an easy task, you can make some humorous mistakes but you can also cause some serious problems. For example, when General Motors introduced the Chevy Nova in South America, it was apparently unaware that ‘no va’ means ‘doesn’t go’ in Spanish. When the company figured out why it wasn’t selling any cars, that’s why they had to rename it as the Chevy Caribe.

And simply writing the same words translated into another language will, more often than not, bring sub-optimal results. It’s like attempting to English-ize the foreign words. (And that’s really a word, ‘English-ize.’ The Oxford Dictionary defines it as ‘to make something English.’) So when you are up for a new English-to-Spanish translation, keep in mind the following 10 common mistakes. They will keep your writing accurate and who knows, they might even save you a few millions of dollars.

1. English pronouns need to be “pronounced,” the Spanish ones don’t.

Because the English language requires a noun or pronoun to be used as the subject of the sentence, you may think that the same is true in Spanish. In Spanish however, the subject of the sentence is frequently conveyed by the ending of the verb: “quiero” means “I want” so there is no need to include the subject “yo.”

2. Don’t confuse the “date” with a “date.”

To express the “date” as in “What is today’s date?” You should use the word “fecha.” Whereas to express a “date” as in “an appointment with someone,” you should choose the word “cita.”

3. “Time” and “time” are not one and the same.

The two Spanish words meaning “time” are not interchangeable. The Spanish word “vez” is most frequently used when referring to an “occasion” like “una vez” (one time) or “muchas veces” (many times). The word “hora” however, refers to clock time. “¿Qué hora es?” (What time is it?)

4. “I have 18 years.” Are you sure?

In English, you use the verb “to be” when talking about age: “I am 25 years old.” But in Spanish the verb “to have” (tener) is used to express age. So, the correct way to say that you are 25 years old, is to say: “Yo tengo 25 años.” Which literally translates to “I have 25 years.”

5. Plural or singular?

In English, the word “people” is a collective noun that must always be used with verbs in the third person plural: “People are good-hearted.” In Spanish, however, the word for “people” (la gente) is singular. It may sound strange at first, but once you’ve got it, the word shouldn’t cause you any more trouble.

6. Do “occupations” keep you “occupied”?

When stating occupations in Spanish, you should not use the indefinite article (un/una). All you need is the verb “to be” (ser) plus the occupation. Thus “I am a teacher” is simply translated into “Soy professor.”

7. Large or small?

Capitalization rules are very different in Spanish than they are in English. There is significantly less capitalization on the Spanish side. Let’s see some examples:

Words that are capitalized in Spanish are names of people (Cristiano Ronaldo), names of places (Madrid, España), and names of newspapers and magazines (El País).

Words that are not capitalized in Spanish are the days of the week (lunes, martes, miércoles), the months of the year (enero, febrero, marzo), languages (español, aleman) and nationality (estadounidense, argentino).

8. “Discusión” vs. “discussion.”

A discussion sounds nice and civilized. It sounds like an event wherein you sit down at a table to talk about an issue, calmly and without rancor. But a discussion is not equivalent to the Spanish word “discusión.” “Discutir” means namely to argue, and “a discusión” is an argument. Not so civilized after all.

9. Double negatives: they’re not so bad.

Double negatives in the English language often make us cringe because they’re substandard. Just think of “I don’t know nobody.” But in Spanish, double negatives thrive. The phrase “I didn’t write anything” is actually translated in Spanish as “No escribí nada.” The negatives are seen as reinforcing, and sound perfect.

10. A single word or simple word?

Using the correct position of the adjective can create some confusion as the meaning can change. “A single word” is translated as “una simple palabra” whereas “una palabra simple” means “a simple word” (one that is not very original).

Normally the adjectives in Spanish follow the noun, but as always there are exceptions that make the rule.

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