Spanish Language Day: A Language That Takes You Around the World

20 April 2023

April 23rd is an important date in the calendar of Spanish teachers for many reasons. One of them is that it is World Book and Copyright Day, celebrated on the anniversary of Miguel de Cervantes’s death, one of the most iconic writers of Hispanic literature (although many writers, men and women, are celebrated on this day). And, of course, April 23rd is also the day when teachers take their students to different activities outside the classroom dedicated to Spanish Language Day. This day is always a fantastic opportunity to discover the fun facts about the language, to “zoom out” and see it in perspective within the Babylonian reality of our globalized world, where Spanish coexists with all the other languages. So, we have every reason to say that we are celebrating today. In order to contribute our bit to this homage to the Spanish language, we would like to share some observations and experiences that we, the Altissia Spanish team, have had throughout all these years working with languages and experts from different professional backgrounds. In our projects, we work with translators, proofreaders, teachers, and pedagogical content creators specialized in teaching Spanish as a foreign language, among many other profiles. All of them allow us to reach our goals and guarantee the best quality. All these jobs provide very diverse experiences regarding the approach to work, and, today, we would like to share some reflections and findings that translation can offer us. Here they are.

Spanish in the Eyes of a Translator

To be a translator means to adopt a split personality, being able to see the world with two different sets of eyes. You have to know well and keep up to date with informal language and usage, recently incorporated words, unique expressions that vary from generation to generation... And all this in the source language. However, the most important thing is having a vast knowledge of your own language in order to shape the voice of those foreign words. Translation attempts to show other ways of understanding the world and its sounds in a very intimate manner, unique to each language. These revelations, “aha-moments”, come in the most random way. You might be translating a text and, for example, suddenly you will have to adapt laughter, which in French is written "ha ha ha," but a Spanish speaker would write with a "j" – "ja ja ja" – something unpronounceable for a French speaker... How funny, isn't it? That’s when you realize that Spanish speakers laugh from the back of their throat, while French speakers do it by making their vocal cords vibrate. This is the way each language interprets the sounds of the world in its own style; when a Spanish speaker kisses, they write "chuic" or "mua" or, when a dog barks, in Spanish it is written "guau". A duck quacking is "cua cua"... And this is just the beginning of the puzzle...

The Spanish Language Around the World

When translating into Spanish, publishers don’t want to miss opportunities by limiting themselves to home. Take into account that Spanish is not only the language spoken in Spain or the Hispanic countries in Latin America, but it is also the mother tongue of more than 496 million people from most continents on the planet, and furthermore, if we include the people who study Spanish, 7.5% of the world's population is a potential reader of the Spanish original of this text. Therefore, when choosing words, we cannot forget about all these horizons scattered around the world. Nor is it realistic to think that we can neutralize the geographical subtleties of the language… and luckily not! The beauty and richness of any language is precisely those sets of words that mean the same thing but in such a different way and, at the same time, with so many nuances. Still, it is possible to come across projects in this sector where editors require translations or proofreadings into “neutral Spanish”. Does that even exist? Let’s look at some examples, I am sure you have heard of them… There are many style manuals that suggest different ideas in favor of that neutral language: for “grab”, it is recommended to use “tomar” or “agarrar” instead of “coger” (which has a very sexual meaning in Central America…); the use of past tense instead of perfect tense is favored (although the distinction is strictly used in Spain and more loosely in Mexico and parts of Bolivia, Chile, and Puerto Rico…); adapting the use of “tú” and “usted” (formal and informal “you”) depending on the audience and main geographical target… It is a long list, especially when you intend to neutralize vocabulary by using, for example, “lover” or “boyfriend / girlfriend” even if each Spanish-speaking country has its own way of saying it. In Peru, Guatemala, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Dominican Republic, or Cuba, to name just a few, they would say: "agarre", "chavo/a", "churri", "chorbo/a", "costilla", "empate", "firme", "jaino/a", "jaño/a", "jevo/a", "ligue", "pinche", "pololo/a", "voladito/a"...
This is also a never-ending story (and let’s hope it never ends!) in advanced-level language classes, where students have different experiences and diverse Spanish backgrounds. How do you answer the question: "How do you say […] in Spanish?"… well, it depends! It depends on which country. But, seeing as teachers have to start somewhere, they often opt for “the most neutral option possible”, teaching that grammar known by every Spanish speaker and used by some of them, and later they will add variety whenever examples from all parts of the world appear.

For all these reasons, we can affirm that Spanish has an interpretation of the world that can be transmitted through this "neutral Spanish", a "Spanish lingua franca", but which at the same time includes a wealth of ways of understanding the world, from the American continent, the Iberian Peninsula, and even from certain regions of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.

Let's let Spanish take us around the world!