Spoken in 20 countries, Spanish has the second largest number of native speakers in the world. People in countries as unique as Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Cuba, and even the United States have developed their own dialects. Yet Spanish is typically lumped into two categories: European and Latin American (LATAM).
When it comes to learning the language, the distinction is helpful. European and Latin American Spanish have significant (though mutually intelligible) differences in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. And one will be more useful than the other, depending on where you live and work. However, when it comes to translation these broad categories may not provide enough nuance to capture your message in a given country. Each country has a unique history and culture--with influences from indigenous groups, Europe, Africa, and even Asia.
Here’s a look at a few of the major Spanish dialects, and when you should use them in translations.
Often referred to as Castilian or Castellano, European Spanish originated in the province of Castile in Central Spain. If you’re launching a website or product in Spain or Europe, you’ll want to translate your content into Castilian.
While this may seem obvious, there are other dialects of Spanish that are spoken throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Andalusian, Murician, Canarian, and Gilbralter are just a few. Fortunately, you won’t need to get that granular, as people in those regions will be used to Castilian as well as their own dialect.
Latin American Spanish (LATAM)
Although it’s called Latin American Spanish, it’s doesn’t cover the whole region. People in mainland Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and most of Central and South America speak a dialect of Spanish that has been lumped into LATAM.
However, each country has its own variations in vocabulary, which are on loan from indigenous, European, and African languages. Of these, Mexican Spanish is the most widely known. Mexican movies, TV shows, and music are popular throughout the Spanish speaking world. And most foreign language movie and TV shows are dubbed into Mexican Spanish, regardless of the country in which they aired.
Again, you’ll want to translate your content into Latin American Spanish when you’re targeting Latin America as a whole.
When it comes to localizing, it may be beneficial to do so if you’re targeting a specific country with a large population such as Mexico or Colombia. It may not be necessary, but it can add a nice touch and separate you from competitors who haven’t done the same.
Rio-what? You may not know the name, but you’ve likely heard it. That melodic, Italian-like accent originated in the River Basin region between Argentina and Uruguay. People throughout the two countries speak this way due to the number of Italian immigrants who arrived in the late 19th century.
The major difference between Rioplatense Spanish and Latin American Spanish is the use of vos instead of tú, for the informal you. Vos is also conjugated differently. In addition, you’ll find some loan words from Italian scattered throughout Rioplatense Spanish. For example, torta, which means sandwich in most of Latin America, means cake in Argentina.
You'll definitely want to translate your content into Rioplatense Spanish when you're targeting the region. Although they understand LATAM Spanish, content in that dialect--especially marketing content, will stand out as "foreign".
If you're targeting Latin America in general, it can still be worthwhile to request two different translations. The combined population of Argentina and Uruguay is around 48 million, which is even higher than Spain's 46.7 million.
Caribbean Spanish is spoken—you guessed it—in the Caribbean. This includes Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and the East coast of Mexico and Central America. The number of speakers is smaller, but there are a few reasons why you may want a Caribbean Spanish translation.
Doing business in Cuba is one of the most common. As U.S.-Cuba relations improve, more U.S. based companies are entering the Cuban market and need to translate copy into the country's unique dialect. Companies in the tourist industry and nonprofits that work in the region may also want to translate materials into Caribbean Spanish.
Equatoguinean Spanish (African)
The only country in Africa that speaks Spanish, Equatorial Guinea has developed a unique dialect. With its imported vocabulary and pronunciation from native Guineans and immigrant Germans from Cameroon, it’s worth a listen. But given the size of the country (just under 1.27 million), the odds that you’d need to translate for Equatoguinean Spanish are small. Yet if you want to tap into this market, you may want to seek out a translator who can adapt to this dialect.
Bonus: U.S. Spanish (Spanglish)
It may be young and not as developed, but a U.S. Spanish dialect is taking shape. As immigrants from various Spanish speaking countries interact, mix Spanish with English, and literally translate English words, a new version of Spanish is spreading across America. For example, flea markets are often called pulgas or literally "fleas" by Spanish speakers in the United States. If you're marketing to Spanish speakers in the U.S., you may want to give a Spanglish campaign a try.
While European and Latin American Spanish may do this trick in most cases, think twice before you dive into translation. There are many reasons why you may want to localize Spanish language content for a specific country or countries. Yes, it will cost you, but it can be worth it. And natives of those countries will certainly appreciate it!