New spelling and the role of Spanish translators

In our routine as professional translators, we are faced with new challenges every day. There are tighter deadlines with higher and higher quality standards, which involve additional links in the translation supply chain, such as language quality assessment and mechanical quality checks. Today’s working environment rests on innovative technologies; integration with remote teams of linguists floating in a “cloud” somewhere, who feel and use the same language differently; and millions of potential consumers scattered in diverse areas of the world.

Every step of the way, the translator wanders as an errant user of the language, trying to cater to everybody’s needs, sometimes leaving the language unprotected, exposed to the risk of impoverishment and progressive deviation from the norm and the etymology of its lexicon.

As a basic rule, if you want to succeed as a guardian of language, you must first arm yourself with a shield: doubt. If you doubt, you research, you learn, you doubt again and double-check, and you can then discuss your findings and enrich yourself from others’ viewpoints. As translators, we are decision-makers, and our decisions forge the language that millions of people will use or repeat. We should ponder our own language, become aware of its expressive capabilities, the linguistic structures that compound it, and the enormous wealth its unity and variety can accumulate. Recently, the Real Academia Española (RAE)released the latest versions of the grammar and orthography rules, called in Spanish Nueva gramática de la lengua española and Ortografía de la lengua española, respectively. In such resources, the translator will not only find the norm (ruling all the Spanish speakers, irrespective of their geographical location) but also reference to variations or traits related to certain communities, times or social spectra. For the sake of language semantics, doubt should always lead you to the dictionary.

Translators of Spanish should constantly resort to the Diccionario de lengua española and the Diccionario panhispánico de dudas, our primary sources of reference for general terminology — needless to say, these are not technical dictionaries or specific of any other field — both from the RAE, available online at for free and in printing at a reasonable cost. Obvious, isn’t it? Then we should wonder why we have been interchanging terms of our language, losing accuracy and effectiveness in the interest of similarity of sound or proximity to the term in another language, mainly cloning terms from English. Almost unnoticeably, we have been using the verb provocar and causar interchangeably, ignoring that the former in Spanish implies an action that leads to or incites another one, while the latter implies an action that someone or something receives passively. Ignorar in Spanish means not knowing about something, which is not the same as ignore in English, where it means to pass something unheeded, skip it or omit it. Even though there are different terms in both languages for these concepts, we tend to keep our rendering closer to the English ignore instead of using omitir, hacer caso omiso or whatever is more appropriate according to context and register in Spanish. Similarly, we just replicate serious as serio, instead of communicating the meaning more effectively using adjectives such as grave or importante. We have adopted the term nominado (which in Spanish simply means named) as a clone for nominee, nomination or nominate, trying to make it convey the meaning of candidato or aspirante. We have gradually lost shades of meaning for several terms, such as control in English, forgetting that you can express it diversely in Spanish, making it more understandable and natural for the reader. Why not translate control fever as bajar la fiebre, control blood pressure as medir la presión and control bleeding as detener la hemorragia instead of repeating controlar endlessly?

We can add many other examples to this list, such as aggressive translated as agresivo instead of emprendedor (in marketing texts); conventional as convencional, which the first entry of the Spanish dictionary defines as the result of an agreement, not tradicional as we should have said; confrontar (confront) instead of enfrentar; estimar (estimate) instead of calcular; severo (severe) instead of grave; sofisticado (sophisticated) instead of avanzado, moderno and so on. In the field of medical translation, linguistic calques are also frequent and so embedded in the scientific community that nowadays we see terms such as médula, randomizar, bizarro and constipación much more frequently than bulbo raquídeo, asignar al azar, curioso and estreñimiento, just to name a few examples. This does not mean we are mistranslating, just that we are confining our language to a set of easily “Englishable” terms. We seem even to forget our privacy, when we translate it as privacidad instead of intimidad. We are so blinded by the English that sometimes it appears as if we are losing consciousness of time, translating within as dentro de, postponing the time span to a further future than the actual date of occurrence. This ambitious cloning practice has also spread to the field of syntax — the deletion of articles, the nonsensical use of prepositions and the overuse of possessive adjectives in Spanish are illustrative examples of this. Unfortunately, many of these terms are so engraved in the eye of the reader or in the client’s lexicon that we are dubious of “correcting” them, since such a decision (or rescue attempt!) may eventually mislead the recipient of the message, who is so well used to reading an impoverished Spanish version.

New moves have been taken by the RAE and we, as language conveyors and protectors, should be aware of them. Mastering the domain of our own language is the primary duty we should take on as communicators, and our language system is formally described and contained in the bibliography published by the RAE.


Proper spelling

Based on the statements in the latest release of the Ortografía de la lengua española, the Spanish alphabet now consists of twenty-seven letters. Digraphs like ll and ch have been deleted from the alphabet and therefore words containing those digraphs at the beginning are ordered in the corresponding position under letters C and L (effective since the twenty-second edition of Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, 2001). In the book mentioned above, there is a section focused on letters with distinctive pronunciation based on the geographical areas (B vs. V, W and Y), clarifying the variations according to each region. Contrary to what many publications and newsletters have reported, there is not a mandatory unification in this sense, but only recommendations for the sake of unity. In relation to differences in spelling, the RAE states preferences for those terms that have double spelling, such as hiedra vs. yedra, hierba vs. yerba, yerbería vs. hierbería (all terms related to herb); yerra vs. hierra (action of erring), yodo vs. iodo (iodine), the first element of the pair being the recommended one. Considering that all such recommendations come from the highest language authority in Spanish, embracing them would contribute a great deal to language unity and we, in our role of communicators, definitely have a say in this regard.

In contrast to what the academic orthographic doctrine has been prescribing in regards to the Spanish prefix ex (former), which up to now had to be written separated from the noun, as in ex marido and ex presidente (ex-husband, former president), the new orthography states that, from this release on, such prefixes should be united to the noun, unless it is used modifying multiword bases, in which case it should be written isolated from the base. The same applies to all prefixes, as in ex primer ministro and anti exclusión social. Although this is the only change in terms of prefixes, it is advisable for translators to revise the whole section of the new release, where they will find clarification for all those cases in which the n-dash is necessary after prefixes, something that will definitely help keep consistency among all speakers of the language. For Spanish, usually, no n-dash between the prefix and base is used. However, as an invitation to see more, let me remind you of the fact that the n-dash is used to separate the prefix when the base is a proper name, such as pre-Camus or pos-Malvinas, as well as when it is an acronym such as mini-DVD or a date, as in pre-1945. If two or more prefixes are used related to one single word base, the n-dash is fixed to the dangling prefix: prey posparto. But when the base is a multiword one, no n-dash is present: anti y pro derechos humanos. Are you sure you have been using it consistently this way? Are you dubious now? Great, because you can find detailed information and examples in the book referenced previously.


Diacritical marks

As one of the key players among the constituents of the Spanish language, the accent marks have always posed difficulties to learners of Spanish as a second language, Spanish native speakers and translators of Spanish. As linguists, it may be hard for us to admit it, but reviewers and proofreaders have enough evidence against us or even themselves. In Spanish, the orthographic accent as a diacritical mark is exceptional, not only because it prescribes graphical accents in words that, according to general rules, should not be marked, but also because it is not used systematically to all potentially markable morphemes. Historically, such graphical marks have been added and deleted in an effort to apply them as consistently and restrictively as possible. In fact, it is graphically marked in certain words against general orthographic rules for the exclusive purpose of facilitating understanding by means of an immediate visual identification of unstressed and stressed variations of one single word and in order to avoid ambiguities in the language. In the new orthographic rules of the RAE, you can find a summarizing chart listing all the monosyllabic words that are written both with the graphic mark and without it, depending on the meaning they convey. In such guidelines, there is explicit indication of the deletion of such marks in other words typically accented. Since 1959 and aiming at restricting its use as much as possible, the orthographic norm has confined the mandatory use of the graphic accent to situations of potential ambiguity. Particularly, this recommendation related to the diacritical mark differentiating the pronominal use from the demonstrative use of the words este, ese, aquel (this, these, that, those) and the corresponding inflections indicating plural and feminine forms, and the diacritical mark differentiating the word solo depending on its part of speech (adjective vs. adverb, graphically accented when used in their pronominal form and as adverb, respectively). As mentioned before, from now on we can do without it based on the RAE’s consideration. The cases of potential ambiguity are rare and easily resolved by contextual information, and priority should be given to the existing orthographic rule. Obviously, such criterion is materialized throughout the book, so reading it will also help reinforce the new concept. Likewise, the old recommendation of marking the conjunction o (or) when used between figures, so as to avoid any potential confusion with the figure zero, has been disregarded based on the fact that nowadays such proactive action is clearly unnecessary due to text processors in use. Again, the translator will find further information and examples in this book, which will drive him or her through the most clear and consistent way of communicating.

Based on the same foundations, in the new Ortografía de la lengua española there is an assertive statement regarding a few words that used to have spelling variations, claiming that only one should be kept from now on. Examples are guion (dash), fie (conjugated form of to give credit), truhan (rogue) and liais (conjugated form of to make a mess). Again, the claim is based on the Spanish accentuation rules for orthographic monosyllables. As you can see, this criterion is the same as the one applied for demonstrative pronouns and the adverb solo mentioned above: the primary rule prevails.


Punctuation and more

There is a section in the book focused on the different punctuation marks of the Spanish system, including the blank space. The translator or reviewer can check for the use, or more specifically the absence, of blank spaces before and after other symbols such as %. For the percentage symbol, as for all other such symbols, the RAE states that there should be a non-breaking space separating the figure and the percentage symbol, something which is not so widely used currently. Such guidelines also address the use, and the absence, again, of spaces and other cases that typically give rise to inconsistency among Spanish translations, especially in the sphere of the English > Spanish translations because of the flexible nature of English. In this release, there is also a specific recommendation for writing URLs.

Typically, when translating from English into Spanish (whichever target market the content is meant for) there is room for hesitation on whether the period should be written before or after the closing parenthesis, exclamation or quotation mark, to name a few. In this new version of the book, there is reiterative reference to the positioning of this punctuation mark, which should always close the sentence after any other mark used therein.

Keeping clarity and consistency when transcribing numerical data should always be at the top of our priorities as translators. Here as well, you must shape your work following the norm. The new orthography book also focuses on prescribing rules for the choice of writing figures in words or using the numerical expression, so that this aspect is not left to subjective perceptions but framed within a norm. This chapter covers dates, time and other number-related expressions, and the main point is the international system is referred to as a ruling body. We tend to confuse the reader by using blurred criteria in this respect (usually mirroring the source in English) and gaining consensus among a large group of linguists working remotely is not always so easy if the decision is not explained up front.

As in any aspect of life, being in good shape is always a plus, but when it comes to protecting a critical asset, it becomes a must. Train your language abilities by taking a reading workout every day, and you will not only guard your language, but your career too! You do not have to go the extra mile, just place the books on your laptop — both the physical and the electronic ones work just fine — and open them up! Whether you use the RAE’s publications just as a reference for a particular query — there are valuable lists of acronyms and symbols in the appendix in the orthography book, for example — or as study material, you will come out enlightened, enriched and armed to win the battle against idiomatic laziness.