Spanish: The Least Common Thing Hispanics Share

Jan 28, 2016
9:52 AM
A statue of Miguel de Cervantes, the author and playwright considered the father of modern Spanish. Spanish is often called "the language of Cervantes." (M. Peinado/Flickr)

Statue of Miguel de Cervantes, the author and playwright considered the father of modern Spanish, which is often called “the language of Cervantes.” (M. Peinado/Flickr)

I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, where we all speak as our first language something we call “Spanish.” And I was sure I spoke Spanish, at least until I left for college in the U.S. and met many other Latin American and Spanish students. That’s when I realized that the one thing we didn’t have in common was our language.

It’s easy to think of Spanish as the common language spoken by 399 milllion people in 31 countries. But this way of thinking is similar to what happens when people in the U.S. find out I’m from Puerto Rico. One of the first questions they might ask is: I had a roommate from Puerto Rico called such and such. Do you know her? Most non-Spanish speakers also wrongly assume that Spanish is the same everywhere, and nothing could be further from the truth.

For example, we speak with different accents depending on our countries of origin, and even within those countries, there are differences. If you don’t believe me, just watch this:

There are also stark differences in how we all interpret the same exact words. A great example is the word bicho, which is a word that merely means insect in most Latin American countries, but in Puerto Rico don’t you dare say that word in a public space, as it is an insult that could be translated as “dick” in English.

In fact, I know I can speak in a way that someone that is not from Puerto Rico would not be able to understand. Heck, I think I can even write in such a way:

¡Wepa, estás ranquiao con ese blinblín! Pero ¿sabes que la mona, aunque se vista de seda, mona se queda? OK, no te rochees, so canto de mamao… ¡El que pica es porque ají come!

Good luck translating that into English, or into any other language for that matter, including into correct Spanish…

Which brings me to this: 523 years after the Spaniards invaded what we now call the Americas, is there a correct Spanish anymore? After all, what is correct in Puerto Rico may not be correct in Mexico or in Colombia, or may mean something entirely different. So when we “hyper-correct,” as Nancy Bird-Soto eloquently puts it, we need to make sure that we are indeed correcting, or we risk changing something that another Spanish speaker thought was perfectly stated.

But what we should call out are the lazy people working at ad agencies or political campaigns in the U.S. who take copy in English and “adapt” it to a Hispanic audience in their Hispandering efforts to attract that demographic. There’s a big difference between writing in Spanish and writing in English and then translating into Spanish. Having been responsible for many translations into Spanish (of a mostly technical and financial nature), I can vouch for the extreme difficulty of the latter. It takes an incredible amount of skill to correctly convey the original meaning, especially when the original text uses idiomatic phrases, and at the same time, translate using words that mean the same to different Hispanic nationalities or regions.

My best advice to those marketing to Spanish speakers in the U.S. is this: Approach the project from scratch, instead of taking the easy way out of developing a campaign in English and then Hispanderize it into Spanish. Many of us cringe when we see meesages like the California Milk Processors Board’s slogan “Got Milk?” which they originally translated into “¿Tienes Leche?” That poor and literal translation really meant “Can you lactate?” to a Spanish speaker.

The same for politicians like Hillary Clinton in her latest tweet:

The phrase “una tristeza” means “a sadness,” which is different from what we would say, which is qué triste. Also, “agua limpia” happens to mean different things to different Spanish speakers. I don’t know of any Spanish speaker who would use the term, but most would understand that what was meant was “agua potable” or “potable water.” But the worst part is that others, like those in the Dominican Republic, would equate the phrase “agua limpia” to “bath water” or “water to be used to mop.” The point is that it was clear this was, again, a poor translation job instead of writing in Spanish in the first place for Spanish speakers.

And don’t get me going with Univision’s and Telemundo’s insistence on having their personalities speak in Neutral Spanish.  That’s akin to erasing our diversity for the sake of… I don’t understand what, but that’s another subject altogether.


Omar Pereira is an award-winning manager, entrepreneur, investor coach and engineer with over 25 years of experience, who currently lives in Dorado, Puerto Rico. In 2007 he founded Atlantis Investment Coaching, LLC, a financial services firm that focuses on coaching its clients instead of selling investment products. As a result, clients learn how to effectively invest and manage their money prudently instead of following the industry lies that foster gambling and speculating. In 2008 he also founded Earthshine Corp., a firm that plans, develops and implements innovative solutions for infrastructure projects throughout the Caribbean. You can follow him @coachomar.