Lost in Translation: Negatives, Gender and Word Order

Lost in translation

As we have previously discussed, Spanish is one of the most widely spoken languages on the planet, both geographically speaking and in sheer number of speakers. The Spanish language is also one of the most studied languages worldwide, second only to the amount of people learning to speak English. One of the more difficult parts of learning Spanish, particularly as an English speaker, is figuring out the sometimes subtle grammatical differences between the two languages.

Over the next few weeks we will be going over some of the more common differences between Spanish and English grammatical structures resulting in some of the most common errors made in English to Spanish translation. Last week we outlined the differences between Spanish and English orthography, where we discussed the differences in capitalization rules, placement of commas and how to properly record numbers.

This week we will be going over a few more of the bigger differences between Spanish and English grammatical structures and what to look out for to avoid common errors in English to Spanish translation:

  • Spanish Language Word Order: Translating a sentence into Spanish word for word will not give you an accurate translation as Spanish language grammar employs a slightly different word order
  • Spanish Double Negatives: English and Spanish grammar have VERY different rules regarding negations
  • Gender in the Spanish Language: Every Spanish noun is assigned a gender and it can also change the way a sentence is constructed

Spanish Language Word Order

When we begin to learn another language, we often do so by learning as much vocabulary as possible. However, simply knowing how to translate the individual words doesn’t mean that the end translation is going to be correct. Knowing just a little bit of vocabulary can trick us into thinking we can translate a sentence word for word while still maintaining the meaning which is simply not true. This is another reason why it is important to use a professional Spanish language translation and copy editing service such as Spanish with Style for even basic translation needs.

The Difference:

The biggest difference, and the area where English speakers tend to make the most mistakes in Spanish, is the position of adjectives in relation to nouns. In Spanish, adjectives always come after nouns, while it is the opposite in English. In English, when describing something we begin with the descriptor followed by the object of our description. For example, if we are describing ‘the red house’, it would be la casa roja in Spanish, which literally translates to ‘the house red’.

Spanish Double Negatives

The English language constructs its negative sentences in a very particular way. English grammar rules are not set up to allow for double negatives and in the off chance that one is used, the phrase changes its meaning completely. For example, while not strictly speaking a grammatically correct sentence in English, it is possible for the phrase ‘I didn’t not take anything’ to be used casually. The double negative in this instance shifts the meaning of the phrase to imply the subject did in fact ‘take something’, by not ‘not’ taking ‘anything’.

The Difference:

Spanish not only embraces double negatives, but they are often grammatically required. The more negative markers one stuffs into a sentence, the more certain you can be of its negation. For example, if we were to translate the same example we gave above, ‘I didn’t not take anything’ directly into Spanish, we would get yo no tomo nada. In Spanish it is exceedingly clear that the subject of the phrase certainly did not take anything, which is not what it meant in English. This is another example of why using a professional Spanish language translation and copy editing service is extremely important, even for simple phrases such as this. Imagine if you had tried to use a software based translation service such as Google translate for this particular phrase, the meaning would have been quite literally, lost in translation.

Gender in the Spanish Language

The use of gender (masculine and feminine) in most Romance languages, Spanish in particular, can be very difficult for native English speakers to grasp. English does not make use of gender when sorting nouns and the prospect of learning not only an entirely new vocabulary but also remembering if they are classified as male or female can seem daunting. The only time English makes use of gender is if you are speaking about a specific person, in which case you would use ‘he’ or ‘she’. English doesn’t even actually require you to do this, and if you preferred, you could refer to people as ‘they’ and bypass gender classification in all cases. This is absolutely not the case in Spanish.

The Difference:

Spanish, as we discussed above, makes heavy use of gender classification and it is also grammatically very important. Not only is every single noun in the Spanish language attributed a gender, but the gender will affect the way the rest of the sentence is constructed. The most prominent example of this is in the use of adjectives. If you wish to describe something as being ‘old’, you must first determine the gender of the old thing in order to know whether to use the word vieja or viejo. Is it an old book? Un libro viejo. Is it old clothing? La ropa vieja.

So how can you tell what gender the noun is? The basic trick is to look at the end of the word. Generally speaking feminine words will end in ‘a’ while masculine words will end in ‘o’. However, this does not help you with the vast amount of Spanish language vocabulary that do not end ‘o’ or ‘a’, and it does not account for exceptions to this rule. The most notable example of what I will call a ‘trick word’ is the word día for day. Using the methodology outlined above you would think it is a feminine word, but it is in fact, a masculine word. The appropriate way to wish someone a good day is buenos días, and not buenas días.

The staff at Spanish with Style are incredibly well trained and are experts in their field. They have many years of education and experience on the matter and know what to watch out for with the often subtle grammatical differences between English and Spanish. You can be certain your text has been translated accurately, clearly and concisely when you entrust your translations to our Spanish translation and copy editing professionals.