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Why the "Easiest" Terms Can Often Be the Hardest to Translate

Erica Huttner

One of the things that has most surprised me in my work as a translator is the fact that it's often basic vocabulary and tiny words that cause the most trouble. If you're doing a good job as a translator and paying close attention to detail, you will certainly have to ask your client for more insight into the text from time to time.

When a translator asks a client for clarification, it doesn't mean that they're bad at their job. In fact, it often means the opposite! The job of the translator is to convert the text into their native language in a way that accomplishes the client's goals. For example, the goal of a marketing text is generally to sell a product, while scientific texts often focus on conveying detailed information.

I've been working on lots of legal texts lately, and have been amused to notice that it's not the complex legal terminology that requires me to ask for further clarification, but instead tiny words in Spanish that can sometimes be ambiguous, especially when immersed in legalese.

In my experience, two of the worst Spanish words in terms of ambiguity are su and le. The term su is the third-person singular possessive adjective ("his"/"her"), while le is the third-person singular personal pronoun ("him/"her"). However, in many Spanish speaking countries they use the third-person singular as a way of formally addressing someone, which allows these terms to also mean "your" and "you" respectively.

While it certainly makes sense for legal professionals and their clients to address each other formally, if they don't also use the formal term for "you", usted (also written Ud.), elsewhere in the text, it's only natural to think that the text may be referring to some other person. Context can often help, but sometimes it can be so unclear that you simply have to reach out to your client and ask.

If you don't ask for help, you risk horribly mistranslating the entire text, which can have a large impact on something of a legal nature. There is a big difference between saying "I informed him" and "I informed you", and so on.

Basic vocabulary words can also cause problems from time to time when translating between Spanish and English. I've particularly noticed this in relation to terms for family members found in literary texts, such as hijos, padres, and hermanos. In Spanish, there is no specific neutral term that refers to "children", "parents", and "siblings". Instead, they use the plural of the corresponding masculine family members, which can also be translated as "sons", "fathers", and "brothers".

In some cases, the ambiguity of these terms doesn't matter at all because it is unnecessary to distinguish between genders, so you can use the neutral English terms. However, sometimes the genders of the people involved can matter, especially in a story. When a character is being introduced at the beginning of a story and it says that they have five hermanos, they could be referring to siblings of both genders or brothers. If you translated it as five "brothers", you could later learn that they actually have four sisters and a brother, which could subtly change how readers view the character.

This is why every detail matters to translators, no matter how small. If you ever do hire a translator and they ask for clarification regarding a term like this that seems simple or unimportant, keep in mind that they're actually hard at word deciphering each and every ambiguity that exists in your original text in order to ensure that they convey your ideas as accurately as possible.