The 13 Most Common Problems in Spanish-English Translation and How to Address Them

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The use of technology to help translators is tremendously important. Using AI tools can help minimize the frustration that translators often feel when translating texts. The automatic translation tools work well with phrases and words, but they lack context. The human translator can provide context and make sure that the right meaning is conveyed in the other language.

A good translator has both knowledge of languages and culture to maintain linguistic integrity. This focus on linguistic integrity is even more important when translating from English to Spanish, as English is a more fluid language than Spanish, which has complex rules for grammar and pronunciation. Here are 13 of the most common areas of Spanish-English translation that can trip learners up.

Translating Afternoon and Evening into Spanish

It is difficult to differentiate these words in Spanish, since la tarde runs from about 1 p.m. to after sunset and therefore includes our afternoon and evening. La noche begins around 8 or 9 p.m.

American, Latin-American, South American, Spanish-American

In Spain americano usually means the same as the English American. In Latin America the same word is usually taken to mean Latin-American and norteamericano is used for our American. The adjective estadounidense ‘pertaining to the USA’ is generally found only in newspaper styles.

América Latina or Latinoamérica is Latin America and is a preferred term since it stresses trans-national identity; the adjective is latinoamericano. However, these terms include Brazil, Haiti, Martinique and one or two other places that speak Latin-based languages, and there is no entirely satisfactory word for Spanish-speaking Latin America.

La América de habla española Spanish- speaking America is long-winded, but Hispanoamérica, hispanoamericano strictly mean Spanish-America(n) and some people consider them unfair to the non- European or non-Spanish components of the populations.

América del sur, adjective sudamericano or suramericano (the latter frowned on by strict grammarians) means South America and does not include Central America or the Caribbean.

Problems with Translating Any

This word is translated as follows:

(a) Before substances and countable nouns, in negative and interrogative sentences, there is no Spanish equivalent:

  • No tengo agua/flores. I haven’t got any water/flowers.
  • ¿Hay? Is there any/Are there any?
  • ¿Hay americanos en tu clase? Are there any Americans In your class?

(b) When it means ‘ it doesn’t matter which', cualquiera:

  • Puedes elegir cualquiera de ellos. You can choose any of them.
  • en cualquier sitio y a cualquier hora in any place and at any time

(c) In comparisons: ninguno :

  • Ella es mejor que ninguno de los hombres. She’s better than any of the men.

(d) After sin without, there is no Spanish equivalent:

  • Ha venido sin dinero. He’s come without any money.

Translating aun and aún

Aun means even, as in aun en ese caso no lo haría even in that case I wouldn’t do it. Incluso means the same thing, and is nowadays more common.

Aún means the same as todavía yet. Todavía/aún no han llegado. They haven’t arrived yet.

Translating To become

There are several ways of translating this and words similar to it in meaning (cf. to get angry, to go red, to turn nasty):

(a) Use a Pronominal Verb if one exists, e.g. alegrarse to become cheerful, se cansó he/she got/became tired.

(b) Use ponerse for short-lived changes of mood, appearance:

  • No te pongas así. Don’t get like that.
  • Esto se pone difícil. This is getting difficult.
  • Se puso colorada. She went red.

(c) Use volverse for more permanent changes:

  • Te has vuelto muy reaccionario. you ’ve got very reactionary.
  • Se volvió loco. he went mad.

(d) Use convertirse en for total changes of nature, cf. English to turn into:

  • Los alquimistas creían que el plomo podía convertirse en oro. Alchemists thought lead could become/turn into gold.

(e) Use hacerse for conversions to a belief or changes of profession involving qualifications: Se hizo diseñador. He became a designer. Hacerse is also found in some set phrases with non-human subjects, e.g. se ha hecho tarde it's got late.

(f) Use nombrar for posts, offices, tides: lo/le ban nombrado Ministro de Asuntos Exteriores he's become the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

De que and que translation issues

These both translate that:

Dice que viene. He says that he’s coming.

la idea de que viene. .. the idea that he's coming.

De que must be used:

(a) After nouns, to show that what follows is a Subordinate Clause and not a Relative Clause. Compare él argumento que él defiende es absurdo the argument that/which he’s defending is absurd (Relative Clause) and el argumento de que la luna está hecha de queso es absurdo the argument that the Moon is made of cheese is absurd (Subordinator). If the English word which could replace that in such sentences, de que cannot be used.

(b) Before clauses after prepositional phrases, verbs and adjectives that include de: Compare

  • antes de la salida del tren before the departure of the train
  • antes de que salga el tren before the train leaves
  • Estoy seguro de tu amor. I’m sure of your love.
  • Estoy seguro de que me quieres. I’m sure that you love me.
  • Se queja de que no la dejan dormir. She complains that they don’t let her sleep.

(c) De que must not be used after verbs meaning to say, to think, to tell, etc.

  • Dice que está enferma. She/he says that she’s ill. (never dice de que está enferma)

Translating '-ing' forms of English verbs into Spanish

This English verb form has many different uses, either as an adjective, a noun, a participle or, sometimes, as a gerund. The following are some of the most common ways of translating the -ing form:

(a) When it is a noun it must be translated by the Infinitive or by a suitable Spanish noun:

  • Smoking is forbidden. Prohibido fumar.
  • I like dancing. Me gusta bailar.
  • hunting and fishing la caza y la pesca

In compounds like driving wheel, fishing rod, diving suit, the -ing form is a noun and the translation must be learned separately: el volante, la caña de pescar, la escafandra/el traje de buceo.

(b) When it is an adjective it must be translated by an adjective:

  • A boring film. Una película aburrida.
  • An overwhelming majority. Una mayoría abrumadora.
  • A worrying problem. Un problema preocupante.

(c) After a preposition it is translated by the Infinitive:

Do it without complaining. Hazlo sin quejarte.

But when the subject of the -ing form is not the same as the subject of the main verb, the Subjunctive or the Indicative may be required:

  • I entered without him seeing me. Entré sin que él me viera.

(d) When the -ing form shows when or how an action is done, use the Spanish Gerund:

  • I realized it while walking down the street. Me di cuenta andando por la calle.
  • He stood looking at me. Se quedó mirándome.
  • You’ll get nothing by shouting like that. No conseguirás nada gritando así.

(e) For the phrase on... -ing’ use al plus the Infinitive:

  • on entering the room al entrar en el cuarto

(f) To translate ‘standing, ‘sitting’, ‘leaning’ or other bodily positions, use the Past Participle:

  • I was sitting on the beach. Yo estaba sentado en la playa.
  • She was leaning against the tree. Estaba apoyada contra el árbol.
  • He was crouching in the corner. Estalla agazapado en el rincón.

(g) After many verbs, the -ing form must be translated by an Infinitive, often with a preposition:

  • Stop shouting. Deja de gritar.
  • Start writing. Empiece a escribir.

Translating To like into Spanish

Spanish uses the verb gustar, which means to please, so the English subject must become the object in Spanish:

  • Me gusta el vino. Wine pleases me. = I like wine.
  • No me gusta. It doesn’t please me. = I don’t like it.
  • ¿Te/Le gusta bailar? Does dancing please you? =  Do you like dancing?
  • Le gusta trabajar aquí. Working here pleases/him/her. = (S)he likes working here.
  • ¿Te gusto? Do I please you? = Do you like me?
  • Me gustas. You please me. = I like you.

How to Translate Only and Alone into Spanish

Solo (agrees in number and gender sola, solos, solas) is an adjective meaning alone: Está sola. She’s on her own. Sólo (with accent) means only, and is the same as solamente: Sólo sé español. I only know Spanish.

Translating Some into Spanish

This word may be translated in several different ways:

(a) Before substances and vague quantities of countable nouns: no Spanish equivalent

  • Pon azúcar. Put in some sugar.
  • Compra pan/flores. Buy some bread/fíowers.
  • Hay patatas. (Lat Am. papas) There are some potatoes.

(b) Before countable nouns when it means a small number:unos/unas:

Han venido unos ingleses. Some/a couple of English people have come.

(c) When some means certain, i.e. some but not others: alguno:

  • En algunos países está prohibido beber alcohol. In some countries drinking alcohol is forbidden.
  • Algún día podré comprarlo. I’ll be able to buy it someday.

Translating the words Spanish and Castilian

España is the country, and español is the adjective Spanish. El español is not the language of Spain, since Catalan, Basque and Galician also have official status and several other languages are recognized locally. El castellano Castilian is the official name for the Spanish language, although Castilian-speakers often call it él español, which may annoy speakers of the other languages.

Translating Would into Spanish

This usually forms the Conditional tense in English,in which case it is translated by the Spanish Conditional tense:

  • If we sold more, prices would be lower. Si vendiéramos más, los precios serían más bajos.

But would is occasionally used in English narrative to express habitual actions, in which case it must be translated by the Spanish Imperfect tense or by soler + Infinitive:

  • Each day he would get up(= used to get up) at six and he'd feed the chickens. Todos los días se levantaba a las seis y daba de comer a las gallinas.
  • He would(= used to) ring her every night before going to bed. Solía llamarla todas las noches, antes de acostarse.

Ya Translation Issues

This constantly-used word basically means:

(1) already with a past tense:

  • Ya ha llegado. / Ha llegado ya. He’s already arrived.

(2) right now with a present tense or imperative

  • Ya vienen. They’re coming right now.
  • ¡Dímelo ya! Tell me right now!

(3) for sure/soon with a positive future tense:

  • No te preocupes: ya llegará. Don’t worry, she’ll come for sure/she’ll be here soon.

(4) not... any more with a negative present or future:

  • Ya no vienen/vendrán. They’re not coming any more.

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