Lost in Translation: Common English to Spanish Errors Orthographic Accuracy in Spanish Translation


The world is becoming an increasingly connected ‘global village’ of sorts, and the Spanish language is increasingly becoming more and more important in this ‘global village’.

Spanish is not only becoming a major player in international business scene, but within the United States as well. The United States alone has 52.6 million native Spanish speakers. For reference, that’s more speakers than Spain, and the second most Native Spanish speakers of any country in the world after Mexico.

Many of us in the United States have a basic grasp of Spanish, or at least know someone who does. Whether it be from growing up reading the back of a bilingual cereal box, having Hispanic friends, or simply having to fulfil a college language credit. Some may speak Spanish better than others or maybe you or someone you know has a Hispanic parent or grandparent and feel comfortable speaking reasonably fluent Spanish. When taking the step to translate materials or documents into Spanish it can be tempting to attempt the job yourself, or pass it off to a friend or colleague you believe to be sufficiently fluent.

When making the decision to translate materials into Spanish, there are some very important points to consider. Hiring a non-professional Spanish translator, even someone who is fluent, may not be trained in some of the most common errors in English to Spanish translation. There are many, often very subtle, differences that only a high trained Spanish language expert will know to look for.

Over the next few weeks we will be looking at some of the most common errors made in English to Spanish translations and this week we will be focusing on orthography. Contrary to what many believe, Spanish actually employs slightly different orthographic rules than English, from capitalization rules to placement of commas and even the way numbers are written.

  • Capitalization in Spanish Copy Editing: The Spanish language employs different rules when it comes to capitalization, from the days of the week to constructing titles.
  • Correctly Placing Commas in Translated Texts: Commas behave in subtly different ways across languages.
  • Translating the Numbers: Presenting facts and figures correctly is imperative and writing numbers in Spanish differs just enough to be utterly confusing for those not “in-the-know”.

The orthographic differences between English and Spanish are very subtle and easy to overlook, and inadvertent errors are easily made. When we think about translation, we often only consider the big picture – words, verbs, sentences. However, there are small differences that only a trained Spanish language expert will know to look out for.

Capitalization in Spanish Copy Editing

Firstly, we will address the issue of capitalization. In English there are a very specific set of rules for words that are capitalized even when they are not found at the beginning of a sentence. For example, in English we capitalize the days of the week, months, languages, nationalities and religions. Monday, July, Buddhist, Canadian. All are written correctly in English. In Spanish, however, neither days of the week, nor months, nor languages, nationality or religion are capitalized. You can see how this would be a common mistake in English to Spanish translation, as even the most fluent person would surely know the correct way in which to say these words, but only trained Spanish language experts would know to watch out for these subtle orthographic differences.

Secondly, we can find a difference in capitalization protocol between English and Spanish in the way titles are written. In English it is expected that all words in a title are capitalized, with the exception of short words such as articles or coordinating conjunctions (the, a, but, and). For titles written in Spanish however, only the first word is capitalized. The Tortoise and the Hare, vs La tortuga y el conejo.

Correctly Placing Commas in Translated Texts

A Second common error made when not using a Spanish translation and copy editing professional shows up in the placement of commas. This is once again a relatively simple element that is easily overlooked by those not trained in Spanish translation and copy editing. However, even something as seemingly minor as a misplaced comma can come across as unprofessional and sloppy.

So, how is it different? Well, in English, when listing items in a sentence, we will use a comma between each item. This is called a serial comma. For example, in English we could write ‘the cups, tables, and forks’. In Spanish however, it is never correct to place a comma after ‘and’, and should be translated as such ‘las copas, las mesas y los tenedores’.

Another very subtle but key difference comes with the usage of quotation marks. In English, if a quotation ends in a comma, the comma is placed inside the quotation marks, while in Spanish it is placed outside. For example: In English “The rabbit did not understand,” the turtle clarified. In Spanish, “El conejo no entendía”, aclaró la tortuga.

Translating the Numbers

Writing numbers and figures seems like it should be the most straightforward part of translating, after all, since both English and Spanish employ an identical numeral system, what could go wrong! Unfortunately for those who don’t use a professional Spanish translation and copy editing service, this can be a highly problematic area and can cause major confusion.

When writing numbers in English, we use the comma to more easily read larger numbers. A comma is typically placed after every third digit and a period is used to denote decimal points, for example: 1,000.00 or 1,000,000.00. In Spanish, however, the usage of commas and periods are switched so one thousand looks like 1.000,00 and not 1,000.00. This can cause significant problems, especially if you are attempting to translate accounting documents, bills or receipts.

Hiring a professional, trained in Spanish translation and copy editing, ensures that your text is free from the most common errors made in English to Spanish translation. Our Spanish with Style team is a group of highly trained Spanish language experts hailing from all across Latin America and Spain. Our team knows to look out for differences as simple as the placement of a comma so your translation is professional and error free.