Spanish to English Translation: Advice From The Pros

Published on Oct 17, 2019

by Marcos Dinnerstein

MotaWord’s translators represent over 80 languages, working around the globe in 154 countries. Each translator has a story of how they acquired advanced language skills and each reflects the variety of global cultures that make our world so rich. I recently connected with MotaWord translators, Shawn Hoffman and Michael Woolgar to learn how each came to master Spanish to English translations. 

Growing up, what languages were spoken at home?

SH: In my home, only English was spoken at home.

MW: English. Later, as an adult, we spoke both English and Spanish when I married in Bolivia and was bringing up our family. We now speak mostly in Spanish with my current wife, but often communicate in English or French as well.

How did you bring your Spanish to English translation skills up to this professional level?

MW: I worked in French for about five years in Québec and had to develop a working knowledge of that language. Then I came to Latin America where I have lived for more than 40 years. I learned Spanish here by working and living in the language. Getting married here and raising a bilingual family was also very important. Learning to translate was another exercise in perseverance to learn the ability to translate into correct “easy English” and to avoid literal translations that sound so forced and unnatural.

SH: I learned a lot of Spanish throughout high school and college, but it wasn't until I actually lived in Spain for a few years and completed a master's degree in translation that I really felt I was prepared to begin translating at a professional level. More than anything, it was eye-opening. Specifically, I learned how much of my own native language that I was unfamiliar with and that being bilingual is absolutely not the same thing as being a good translator. There were so many aspects of translation that I was unfamiliar with, including transcreation, cultural mediation, and some of the legal aspects that can come into play that really made the experience much more useful than simply developing communication skills in another language. 

Most often, what language pairs do you work in and in which direction? 

SH: I work almost exclusively between English and Spanish with some very rare instances of Portuguese. The majority of my work is done from Spanish into English - that is, my learned language into my native language. Generally speaking, I would encourage all professional translation to be done into one's own native language. No matter how good a speaker of another language may be, it is, frankly, impossible to achieve the same level of proficiency as a native. In the worst case, one should always have work done into a non-native language revised by a linguist who is native – not just somebody who speaks the language but a linguist familiar with translation, grammar, language use, etc.

MW: Spanish to English and French to English. I often write in Spanish myself for business purposes, at a very proficient level, but it is still not good enough for professional translation purposes.

What kind of Spanish do you work in? Spain Spanish? Latin American? And how strict is that separation?

SH: I am confident working from a variety of Spanish dialects into English, though sometimes I must refer to natives from a specific country or region to aid with certain words. I am confident translating into Castilian Spanish from Spain, though, as mentioned above, would also encourage this work to be done or reviewed by a native from the region. The difference in regional dialects within one country can be immense. The differences between countries are even more evident. There are countless examples (and some very funny videos) comparing the differences of expressions in various Spanish-speaking countries that shed light on just how different the varieties of languages can be. Aside from language, cultural appropriateness can play a large role. In the end, a professional translator who is properly trained should be able to confidently navigate these differences. However, when it comes to legal or very specific texts, it may be incredibly difficult to carry out certain translations without a thorough understanding of the system from which the text has been produced.

MW: I work with a lot of Spanish national service providers as well as some in Latin America. There are some differences but they don’t cause a lot of problems. You must be attuned to different local expressions that you might have to investigate

What do you most enjoy about Spanish to English translation?

SH: One aspect that I really enjoy is the variety. I do freelance work, which sometimes includes texts covering a wide range of topics, registers, and audiences. That variety keeps it interesting. The ability to work remotely is also a huge benefit! Depending on your client base, you may also be able to set your own schedule to a certain degree.

MW: The challenge to find the appropriate terms in English to reflect the original text and to express the translation in “easy-flow” and correct English.

Any advice for beginning translators?

SH: Actually train to be a translator if you are considering doing a translation. Knowledge of a second language is certainly important, but it is far from adequate training when it comes to translation. Join associations, get training, learn which resources can be trusted, and do not be afraid to reach out to the translation community when you don't understand a certain term of text – chances are somebody else has seen it before – never guess!

MW: Persevere, avoid literal translations, make your translations flow easily and naturally in the target language, take care with correct grammar and punctuation, be consistent, get lots of online dictionaries, thesaurus, and subject-specific references and use them often. Finally, if you don’t understand something in the text -> ASK, some of the terminologies can be complicated and confusing, especially if you are not familiar with the subject. Don’t take on subjects that you don’t understand – medical documents, for instance. Make sure that you can deliver your translation on time and properly reviewed it for errors. Take time out every 30 - 60 minutes to give your mind a break so that you can maintain your concentration when you return. Enjoy your work, because if you don’t you will make a mess of it.

What's the most unusual Spanish to English translation job you've done?

SH: Coincidentally, the most unusual job may be one from MotaWord itself. It was a survey that had been sent out to adolescent girls in a few different Latin American countries to get feedback on tampons and other aspects of female hygiene devices. Both the questions and the answers were interesting, to say the least.

MW: I don’t know about “unusual”, but some of the most impacting subjects involved the horror stories of refugees from Central America escaping crime and terrorism in their home countries.

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