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Interpreting and translating Spanglish

Medical Pharmaceutical Translations • Jul 24, 2023 12:00:00 AM

Updated: Jul 25

Many translators and interpreters work with Spanish and English, two of the world’s most commonly spoken languages. But many of them may also need to know how to translate a linguistic phenomenon most commonly known as Spanglish.

What is Spanglish?

“Spanglish” is a portmanteau of “Spanish” and “English”. It’s a blend of the two languages. This can occur in a variety of ways, most commonly:

● English words included in Spanish sentences and Spanish words used in English sentences

● English words included in Spanish but adapted to Spanish pronunciation and spelling

● English or Spanish grammatical structure applied to the opposite language

● The use of preexisting Spanish words to replace English words that sound similar but have a different meaning. (For instance, the Spanish word carpeta means “folder”. But among Spanglish users, it can also refer to a carpet.)

Spanglish is spoken by Spanish-speakers who live in English-speaking countries. It’s most commonly associated with Spanish-speakers in the US, but it also exists in other Anglophone countries with Spanish-speaking populations, like Australia.

As you might expect, Spanglish can vary depending on local vocabulary.

Is Spanglish a language?

It’s hard to define exactly what Spanglish is. It’s not a language, but rather a combination of two languages. It’s not officially a dialect, either. This article helpfully calls it a bridge between Spanish and English.

Because it’s not a language, many Spanish and English speakers find Spanglish extremely informal and unprofessional, with some calling it “lazy”. Some Spanish speakers in Anglo-dominant countries also see it as a threat to the preservation of their language.

Because of its controversial nature, when people who use Spanglish in their everyday lives find themselves in professional, formal, or academic situations, they will usually only use either Spanish or English.

But as this fascinating NBC News article points out, speaking Spanglish is far from lazy; in fact, the ability to code switch - that is, switch from one language to another - involves “sophisticated brain work”.

Regardless of how people feel about Spanglish, it’s hard to reign in language. People have been speaking Spanglish to some extent ever since English and Spanish speakers had to communicate together, and on a large scale since the 19th century in North America. For many of them, Spanglish is not only a part of their everyday lives, but also a part of their identity.

A number of writers and poets have published works in Spanglish or that include Spanglish terms and dialogue, and some classic books like Don Quixote and The Little Prince have been translated into Spanglish.

Many sources also point out that modern-day pop music frequently features songs with Spanish or Spanglish lyrics combined with English, as well.

Should Spanglish be translated?

Because some people consider Spanglish a part of their identity and a way of speaking that should be respected in its own right, when it comes to areas like literature, poetry, music, interviews, and advertising, Spanglish shouldn’t be translated into standard Spanish or English unless the speaker or particular context requests or requires it.

But there are some situations where choosing not to translate Spanglish could have serious consequences. For instance, legal testimony and records must be uniform and clearly understood by everyone involved in a case. The same very much goes for medical translation, where misunderstandings could lead to serious health issues, lawsuits, or even death.

In a fascinating recent article, interpreter Andrew Belisle writes about his experience with Spanglish interpreting for the legal and medical fields. He gives several examples that illustrate how Spanglish interpreting can be complicated. Aside from common Spanglish terms and usage that might confuse the uninitiated, Belisle often faces more region-specific variants. For instance, using the term Güaraberguer for the fast food chain Whataburger, or playera, which usually means “a shoe worn on the beach” was used by one client to mean “play area”.

How to translate and interpret Spanglish

For experienced translators and interpreters, many Spanglish words and phrases are well known or relatively easy to understand. In situations where translating Spanglish is requested or necessary, these terms can be translated into standard Spanish or English, depending on the target audience.

But when it comes to very specific words that the translator or interpreter may not know or be sure of, Belisle advises two particular approaches.

In legal interpreting, Belisle has found that it’s better to notify the other members of the court that there could be a comprehension issue tied to a specific pronunciation or usage, for example:

[saying] to the attorneys (in third person, as is protocol), “This is a comment from the interpreter. The witness is saying his profession in English and not in Spanish, and the interpreter is unable to make out the name of the profession.”

From there, Belisle writes, the attorneys will then question the witness to be sure the information is understood.

In medical interpreting for Spanglish, on the other hand, Belisle will tell the care provider he’s stopping to clarify the term directly with the Spanglish-speaking patient. When he’s certain of what the patient wants to say, he’ll continue interpreting.

For translators, all of this points to the importance of being able to contact clients with any questions about terminology.

We may not be able to classify Spanglish into a clear linguistic category. But one thing that’s certain is that it’s spoken by millions of people around the globe. How - and when - to translate it, are essential things for translators working in Spanish and English to know.

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