Spanish Regionalisms and Idioms in Literary Translations

When reading a novel translated into Spanish, most readers hope it will have a “neutral” form of Spanish; that is, one without regional characteristics specific to any particular Spanish-speaking country. Of course, such an undertaking is practically impossible, as there are many words in Spanish that do not have a “universal” equivalent. This is the case, for example, with articles of clothing. Words such as chamarra/chaqueta/campera/cazadora (all meaning “jacket), or playera/remera/camiseta/franela (all meaning “T-shirt”) do not have “neutral” versions.

However, in different translations of novels originally written in a language other than Spanish, and whose translation has been done in Spain, one can infer that he or she is reading a novel translated by a Spaniard after just a few paragraphs. Below are various terms and expressions that have different uses in Latin America, or which are simply not used there at all.

Probably the most obvious sign of Peninsular Spanish is the use of the pronoun vosotros, which therefore also employs the use of the reflexive pronoun os, the possessive form vuestro/vuestra,  and the corresponding verb conjugations. In modern times, these uses have been limited to some regions in Spain. In Latin America, on the contrary, the form ustedes is used for the second person plural. Something similar happens with the use of the pronouns le/les to replace the direct object with an indirect object, for example when one says le llamé instead of lo llamé (meaning “I called him”). The geographical distribution of this use is rare in Spain, but it is not completely absent from Latin American countries; for example, it is common in countries such as Ecuador, Paraguay, Argentina, and Mexico.

With regard to vocabulary, Spain also has its regionalisms. In this way, we see that the word fallo is used to indicate what in other countries is referred to as falla or desperfecto (error), rather than as a synonym of the word veredicto (verdict), the meaning it commonly has outside of Spain. Other words, such as ordenador instead of computadora (computer), and costes instead of costos (costs) could also be considered to be Spanish regionalisms, although the Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy) does not always indicate this. There are hundreds more examples such as these.

For readers, perhaps the most shocking adaptation that is not native to Spain is that of colloquial or vulgar language, due to the fact that each country clearly has different terms to refer to the same thing or situation. If it is difficult to find “neutral” expressions for common nouns, then this task is complicated even further is one tries to adapt insults or colloquialisms so that any Spanish speaker can understand them. At the very least, it will end up sounding funny, or will lose the very informal tone of the original text.

As you can see, a translation containing some or all of these terms, or an infinite number of other terms not mentioned here, would result very natural for a Spaniard, but very strange for anyone else. Given this situation, the ideal solution is to localize literary translations for each country before they are published, so as to avoid the awkwardness of reading a translation that, in many instances, is distant and impersonal at best, or at worst, is practically illegible to the reader.