How lost in translation within different Spanish speaking countries can really get you in trouble, and how to prevent it from happening to you.


We were delivering a Sales Process seminar in Panama to representatives from 11 different Spanish speaking countries and I was the only one that understood all of them.

It was an automotive related class for business owners and managers, so they were all well-educated, but in this particular case it became very revealing as to how different Spanish was from country to country and they often asked me “What does that mean?”.

Let me give you a few examples:

1.  If we have listened to any Spanish growing up we know that the word for something being “good” is “bueno” in Spanish. However, in Mexico that would be something being “Padre” or in Venezuela it would be known as being “Chevre.”

Padre means father, and Chevre has no translation that I have ever found in Spain, where my family is from. Imagine even my Spanish father’s reaction when reading my reviews from delivering Sales Training, where he wanted to know why they kept referring to me as a father figure. He was very confused, and he taught Spanish at colleges in Canada.

2.  Next are the multiples of words available for the exact same items. The trunk of a car can be called (cajuela, baul, maletera, puerta mala, or joroba) and your tires can be referred to as the (llantas, gomas, rodas, or ruedas); so, you can see what might happen when bringing people in from multiple countries, where presumably they all speak the same language.

Based on this initial conversation you can see why finding the right translation service just might make a difference if you are counting on them to deliver your message in Spanish.

When choosing someone, or a company to translate for your business:

Make sure of the country or countries you are translating for. In our case because we do work in many Spanish speaking nations all at once, we look for someone who can deliver the translation in a neutral version. However, when we were just doing work in Mexico, we have asked for a Mexican Spanish translation. Knowing the differences are not that easy, and could potentially get you in trouble.

It is the reason I get nervous when a client will say, “let’s save money, I have a niece from Costa Rica (or wherever) who speaks Spanish and she can translate it for me”.

My parents are from Spain, I took Spanish formally in college and attended some grade school in Spain in Spanish. I certainly do not feel qualified to provide translation services for more that a simple letter. It is a real art, to make sure the meaning of something is not lost in translation.

Here are some of the things that will happen:

I have seen happen to my kids at school in a Spanish class. Spanish in some Latin American countries has been anglicized that it also creates confusion. I knew this was first a problem in my senior year in high school when my grandmother in Madrid said “OK”, and that was the first time I ever heard her use a word in English. The more common words that have entered Latin America where they use an English version are:

English                       Spanish                     Latin American Spanish

Parking lot                    Estacionamiento                         Parqueo

Computer                     Ordenador                                  Computadora

Car                                 Coche                                          Carro

Jeans                             Baqueros                                     Jeans

Jacket                            Chaqueta                                    Jacket

Now some of these changes have even creeped into Spain, where the addition of English words is quite regular on this list, are also now used in Spain.

You can imagine what it might be like when you are using swear words, or slang.

When I started working in both languages at both times, I made the mistake of forgetting not to you the verb “cojer”, and in several countries it is considered part of the “F” words.

My first experience with this mistake was in creating a case study which left seminar participants laughing in the aisles, and my client was shocked at their reaction, which was understood to be ok later. I also now hear people in Latin America using our profanity in English when they add it in to express frustration in their Spanish.

Nothing is harder to describe though than how I would have to translate my father getting upset with me in his Spanish way, and then trying to describe how “Pooping in Milk” (Literal translation) was considered bad language in Spain.

Here is where you might find some real embarrassment in business if you get lost in Spanish to Spanish translation.

It was back in that original class in Panama where a very professionally dressed Nidia said, “The customers complain about the noise it makes when I touch the horn.”

She was describing a common complaint of customers, given that in her market they used the horn a lot and her customers didn’t like the sound it made. Please know that the horn of a car in Spain is the “vocina”, in Mexico the “claxo” and in Panama and other markets it is known as the “pito” for the noise it makes.

The challenge with this choice of words next to a gentleman from Mexico is that the pito is known as what you tell a little boy is his man part, as I was taught by my Spanish parents.

So, what my friend Jaime from Mexico heard was “The customers complain about the noise it makes when I touch their (man part).” Jaime looked at me with fear as he was sitting right next to her and asked “What did the Lady say?!”.

None of these examples ever cost me business, but my recommendation is to be careful when getting things translated into Spanish for any market. If you would like some help, please feel free to reach out. We have great resources for translation, but we also review the translations to make sure nothing has been lost in translation.

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