Spain and the future of Spanish translation

Spain is so linguistically diverse and culturally disparate that the different dialects appear to rub together on parallel lines rather than blending as one. Spain’s unique regional flavors might make for an interesting cultural odyssey, but for the translation and localization industry, it’s a headache, as each territory continues to develop its own lexicon of both formal language and colloquialisms.

Two industries where everyone has to be speaking or writing the same language are the medical and legal professions. As a general rule, Spanish speakers can understand and converse with other Spanish speakers, be they from Argentina, Cuba or Mexico. Problems occur with the written word, however. For example, it is commonplace for translation companies to come across medical reports written by a Catalan secretary, based on a doctor’s notes written in European Spanish.

This immediately creates a translation challenge. Translators are often advised by their employers to deploy a “delicate touch” when translating documents containing both Spanish and Catalan phraseology. Managing limits on interpretation is a skill developed by translators over time, but critics argue that it’s a philosophy that doesn’t always work with technical documentations such as medical records and legal notices.

Latin American and European Spanish project work will feature in the majority of translation companies’ top five most commonly translated languages (both source and target). However, as the Spanish language develops along its own lines, the challenges for the industry become more complex.

To help understand this, consider the attempts to unify the Spanish language — attempts that have resulted in problems in its homeland. Spain’s parliamentary upper chamber famously caused controversy in 2011 by allowing senators to debate in five of the country’s regional languages at the same time. These regional languages included Catalan, Euskaran (Basque), Galician and Valencian.

Interpreters were employed to translate into Castilian Spanish — the universal language understood by all. The media called it a pointless exercise in political correctness and accused politicians of wasting public money during one of Spain’s most austere economic periods. The bill for the 25 interpreters who were needed to turn the languages into Castilian Spanish was €12,000 for each day of debating, according to Spanish media.

Meanwhile, attempts to preserve Spain’s different regional languages have met with similar outcry. Many of Catalonia’s recent laws require the use of Catalan text by doctors, teachers and public sector workers. A 2014 report by the London School of Economics and Political Science explained that “Catalonia’s independence project has given rise to the most serious constitutional crisis Spain has seen in recent times.” This follows a ruling by the High Court of Justice in Catalonia suggesting schools need only teach 25% of classes in Spanish.

In the Basque legal framework, it follows that both plaintiff and witnesses will use the language with which they are most familiar, while clerks will write up minutes and update laws in Castillian, as per the legal requirements of the country. In an attempt to provide unity, the Basque Government launched an automatic translator from Spanish to Basque in 2012. Five years in the making and with development costs of almost half a million euros, the tool was announced on the back of a 1.6 million euro investment into the development of the Public Bank of Translation Memory.

There is no data on its success, but the example shows that regional and national government cannot win. Preserving regional dialects or seeking to make them more unified will upset someone along the way.

If the future of the language is going to be dependant on the internet and social media use, as many experts predict, then a magical union between Spain’s many regional dialects is unlikely. Anyone can write a blog post, and anyone can tweet or text, and thus language will become ever more localized. At the same time it will scatter, become more fluid and evolve.

If today’s schoolchildren are the translators of tomorrow, then Spain’s translation industry could be at a crossroads. As the language becomes more regional and spreads its wings around the world, so there is a strong possibility it will become even more muddled and confused.

The Spanish translation industry is centered in the major cities of Barcelona and Madrid — the very two cities that are at the forefront of championing the regional differences of Spain. The language translation and interpretation studies sector is increasing rapidly, and thousands of Spanish students are earning degrees in translation and interpretation. However, lack of regulation in the country means that the quality of these courses cannot be determined.

Can translation companies do more to ensure an accurate translation of what can potentially be a life-changing document? There are an estimated 27,000 language service providers (LSPs) operating around the world, in an industry valued at around $36 billion, naturally offering varying levels of professionalism and accuracy. From simple medical receipts for insurance purposes to complex pharmaceutical research reports, and last wills and testaments to witness statements, the translation industry deals with a vast amount of varying legal and medical materials. Therefore the focus must be on the translation industry to work even harder to uphold the highest levels of quality. TAUS is calling this the “Convergence Era,” where “translation is becoming a utility embedded on every screen, in every device, in every application. The translation industry plays a crucial and strategic role in the ever more globalizing world of business and governance.”

The emphasis also falls on the EN:15038:2006 — the highest global quality standard — for translation services and the first pan-European standard that addresses the quality of the translation process specifically and establishes translation service requirements. EN:15038 was approved by the European Committee for Standardization in April 2006 and was officially published in May 2006. Spain was one of the early members.

EN:15038:2006 is significant on a number of levels. As more translation agencies strive to achieve certification, the standard will gain even wider recognition, not only will this put pressure on translation agencies to continually strive for excellence and industry best practice, it will also encourage language schools, colleges and universities to ensure that their home grown translation and interpretation courses meet the required international standards.

The standard also puts a need on the translation company to continue to put in place processes at each level of the translation process in terms of translation checking and reviewing.

There is no way of gauging the quality of in-house or online translations tools, such as the Basque Government initiative in 2012, which may not meet the stringent levels of quality afforded by translation companies accredited with EN:15038:2006.

It has been argued that it is the job of translation providers to educate businesses on the worth (or perceived lack) of online translation tools or smartphone applications. The worry is that legal and medical professionals will assume a reliance on these tools, and see them as a cheaper and easier replacement for the traditional and more expert offerings of professional translation companies.

The real and true problem for Spain’s language lies in its popularity. Recent figures suggest that in the United States, the Hispanic business world’s market size, growing influence and buying power is projected to increase to an estimated $1.5 trillion by the end of this year. It is possible that in 30 years, the Spanish translation industry, its services, technological applications and customer base will be concentrated in Latin America rather than Spain itself.

The growth of language is good news for the translation industry, but for a divergent and exploding language, perhaps all translation companies can do is maintain the status quo — paying attention to the correct and consistent use of terminology and grammar, while at the same time considering local conventions and regional nuances of language. While many see a final proofreading option as an unnecessary luxury in the sign-off process between LSPs and clients, it could be viewed as an important safety net before any project goes live.

Translation memory can also act as a preserver of language and can be regarded as a marketable asset for translation companies forming a core part of a translation company’s intellectual property. It is an industry standard that translators’ work rates and quality improves with content familiarity, memory reuse, terminology in context search and automated spell checking.

Legal and medical services are finding it easier to reach wider markets and access potential customers. So too is wider business. The Spanish language is enjoying similar global reach.

As Spain seeks to find the answer to the perpetual question of how to live as one nation, while at the same time promoting and extolling its regional differences, its language continues to follow on a path of its own, throwing up daily challenges and complexities for the translation industry, with no end in sight.