The Varieties of Spanish

Category: Language

As a native Spanish speaker, I know that Spanish is a sophisticated and complex Romance language that poses challenges to mother tongue speakers and language learners alike. Spoken in at least 20 different countries, Spanish is not the same language everywhere. Each country has its own “flavor”, which is even more accentuated than the “flavors” that exist, say, between British English and American English. Sometimes, seemingly innocuous words in one language can have negative connotations in translation. And within Spanish-speaking countries, you have regional differences in Spanish words, phrases and accents. Here are some examples:

Cars: Nissan should be careful if they want to launch their Moco minicar in certain Spanish-speaking countries, as “moco” is slang for…how do we put this delicately…”snot”. Likewise, the Volkswagen Jetta could never be marketed in some countries like Argentina or Uruguay where jeta is a very slangy word for “face”, and yeta, which sounds very similar to Jetta, means “bad luck”. Who wants to drive a car that means “bad luck”?

Food: Now, let’s say you want to sell popcorn in movie theaters across Latin America. What name do you put on the bag? Well, that depends:

Country

Spanish Equivalent for “Popcorn”

Argentina

pochoclo, pororó [but only in the north]

Bolivia

pipocas

Chile

cabritas, popcorn [only use the latter only if you want to sound really cool]

Colombia

crispetas, maíz pira

Dominican Republic

palomitas (de maíz)

Mexico

palomitas de maíz

Peru

canchita

Puerto Rico

popcorn

Uruguay

pororó, pop

Venezuela

cotufa, gallito

In this case, a picture may (almost literally) be a thousand words. Or, perhaps, you can combine a picture with the words that will work in your largest markets.

Apparel: Selling clothes in Spanish-speaking countries can be complicated if you want to say “tennis shoes”.

Country

Spanish Equivalent of “Tennis Shoes”

Argentina, Panama

zapatillas

Bolivia

tenis, zapatillas, deportivos, kits

Canary Islands

tenis, playeras

Chile

zapatillas, tillas [informal]

Colombia, Cuba, Nicaragua

tenis, zapatillas

El Salvador

tenis, zapatos deportivos

Spain

zapatillas, zapatillas deportivas, bambas, tenis, deportivos

Honduras, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic

tenis

Paraguay, Uruguay

championes

Peru

zapatillas, tabas [informal]

Venezuela

zapatos de goma

With so many options, the one that seems to work for most is the very literal calzado deportivo, which you will not find in this list as it is more of an explanation than a translation. Sometimes, sacrificing regional flavor for straightforward meaning is the best way to go.

If you decide to pursue a single Spanish translation that appeals to many different Spanish-speaking countries, you’ll want to avoid getting into trouble by reviewing any words, phrases, metaphors, etc. that can be misleading or possibly even offensive, depending on the target region.  If your content is straightforward enough, another option is to work with your localization agency or in-country partner to craft a kind of “Universal Spanish”, based mainly on avoiding certain words or expressions that can’t be easily understood across Spanish-speaking countries. The goal is to be regionally neutral, while still retaining the character that is unique to the Spanish language.

Your Spanish translation will benefit if you know your regions and have a good translation agency or in-country partner to help you out. Depending on your content, it may indeed be possible to find tone and terminology that works in all of your regions.

Photo attributions: R.Duran (Spanish flag)