Preventing Content in Spanish from Getting Lost in Translation


According to the Harvard Business Review:

“A study from the Pew Hispanic Center shows that 82 percent of Latino adults in the U.S. speak Spanish, and 95 percent believe it’s important for future generations to continue to do so. Another study by the National Hispanic Consumer Study found that advertising in Spanish can boost both advertising effectiveness and customer loyalty.”

Bottom line: Competently, accurately communicating messages in Spanish is a pivotal step in engaging Spanish-speaking Hispanic audiences.

As a communications professional fluent in Spanish, I’ve learned that Hispanics often find different meanings in the same word and address their audiences in different ways depending on where they’re from.

To prevent messages from getting “lost in translation,” keep in mind the following tips to overcome common challenges communicators experience when translating from English to Spanish. Many of these best practices can be applied when translating to other languages, too.

  1. Know your audience. Define your message’s target audience to the translator. Within the Spanish language, there are a variety of dialects. Are you targeting Spanish speakers of Mexican descent? Chilean descent? Or all Spanish speakers from all regions? The tone of your message should also be determined by your intended audience. If you’re speaking with professional business owners, using formal language is probably best (e.g., usted), but if your message is targeted at young teens, using informal language (e.g., ) will give you more credibility.
  2. Be aware of linguistic differences between cultures. Did you know a cuadra means a city block in Latin American Spanish, but a stable or pigsty in Spain? Never assume everything being translated will be understood the way you meant it; instead, research these cultural nuances to make sure that you’re communicating the correct idea or message.
  3. Do not translate word for word; culturally adapt. Literal translation is not the way to go if you want your message to be culturally relevant and unique. A funny example that comes to mind is when the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council tried to use their “Got Milk?” campaign in Mexico. After translating and disseminating their message word for word, it was soon brought to their attention that their literal Spanish translation read “Are you lactating?
  4. Allow time for a thorough job. People may assume Spanish speakers have Google Translate in their brain and can translate a novel as quickly as they can read it. In truth, it takes time to research, adapt and thoughtfully translate a message, for the reasons outlined in tips 1 – 3 above! Keep that in mind when negotiating deadlines with your translator. Allow time for translations to be completed, and reviewed, thoughtfully and thoroughly. This may mean pushing back launch dates in order for both English and Spanish versions to be completed and released at the same time.
  5. Make sure more than one Spanish speaker reads the text. This will prevent linguistic errors, grammatical errors and word-for-word translation issues. An inaccurate or accidentally offensive message in Spanish can make or break your brand, and a poor translation can ruin your organization’s reputation. One word can change the meaning of the entire sentence. For example: Yo quiero a mi papá vs. Yo quiero a mi papa is the difference between “I love my dad” and “I love my potato.” You get the idea.