Usted, Tú, Vos – Challenges for English-to-Spanish Translation

Category: Language, Translation Services

Your high school Spanish has probably been retired to some remote corner of your mind that you visit only occasionally by necessity. Even so, you likely remember the challenges of learning this rich and beautiful language that so many Americans claim is ‘easy’. In reality, Spanish is much more complex than the layman realizes and its structure varies greatly from one country to another.  The vocabulary, idioms and even grammatical forms are very different in Spain and Mexico, for example – lo pasé bien in Spain is la pasé bien in Mexico. Taking these subtleties and nuances into account and choosing the correct target audience are keys to successful English-to-Spanish translation.

One of the elements of Español that varies greatly across dialects and borders is the use of pronouns – usted and vos. Could anything be more fundamental to a sentence than the pronoun?  This particular grammatical element is absolutely crucial and yet its application is very culture-specific. Though we do not have this distinction in English, we can appreciate the difference in tone between ‘you guys’ and ‘you’. When addressing members of the board of your company, it’s unlikely that you’d ask, “So how are you guys doing today?” The formal and informal tone is even more developed in Spanish and is nuanced uniquely in each hispanohablante country.

In Spain, for example,  has become commonplace and usted is quickly being phased out of communication, much to older generation Spaniards’ surprise and often chagrin. Radio Nacional hosted a program last night for the elderly, who were supposed to call in with words of wisdom for the next generation. It was surprising to hear the host of the radio and the elderly folks address each other using the informal  as early as the introduction phase– “cómo te llamas” and “cuántos años tienes?” Usted was nowhere to be found or heard.

This is a recent phenomenon in Spain – dating back to the 1930s when social equality took on new importance in the shifting political landscape of the country. Before the 30s, students at the university would refer to each other as usted was for God, the family and intimacy. Over the next several decades, it became progressively more commonplace to refer to friends as . Grandparents, professors and other respected professionals followed suit and finally total strangers were given the tuteo in the last ten years or so. The higher the social class, the more  has come to dominate. Today it would be quite odd to call a friend usted in Spain.

By contrast, in Colombia, usted is often used among family members and friends to express trust, intimacy, solidarity and confidence.  Brothers will call each other usted – which to an outside observer from Madrid would make them seem like strangers from another era.  The use of  is a bit more frequent among women and higher social classes but in general, usted is the default pronoun in Colombia.

The equation gets more complicated when you add vosVos is from Old Spanish and can be heard in isolated areas of Spain and Colombia but is more common in countries like Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay where it has completely replaced  in the written word.

In Guatemala, vos is used between a man and a woman who have established a relationship but as they are getting to know each other, they’ll use . Among men, the use of  is a sign of homosexuality (via Wikipedia en español). In Nicuaragua, vos is informal and usted is formal;  is basically extinct. The same goes for Costa Rica where is avoided completely.

The map of pronoun usage is even more complex when you consider variances within a given country linked to social status, sex and geography. This is certainly something to take into consideration as a tourist but the stakes are higher if you are taking your business global and need a culturally appropriate message for each country you plan to target.

Given the lack of a universal standard for pronoun usage in Spanish, the goal of crafting a message that will bear the same emotional and cultural weight in every country is ambitious. Localization, which goes beyond translation, is necessary to fine-tune your message to specific countries, keeping in mind these very pronounced linguistic differences.

At the very least, investing in effective localization will spare you the embarrassment of committing tiny linguistic blunders or transmitting a bland message that is either irrelevant or incomprehensible.

Ask your translation partner today how to best adapt your website, ad campaigns, marketing docs and ecommerce platform to the various Spanish-speaking markets. You will see that getting your pronouns right will lead to success!