¿Por Favor? Please don’t.

Spanish is a global language: Counting bilingual people, estimates suggest that 450 to 500 million people around the world speak Spanish. This makes it the fourth most widely-spoken language after Mandarin Chinese, Hindi and English. It also ranks second in the most frequently taught foreign languages, behind English. But that does not necessarily make it any easier to translate between Spanish and German. Marta Terés, a native of Spain and qualified translator, knows all too well that even a world language might be missing the odd word.

What do you do if there are no words?

Admittedly, we’re talking about unusual words. But a professional translator will have to find a conclusive way to convey even their meaning in a foreign language. Technical words like ‘Stülpform’ (indented tray packaging) or ‘Benarbungsband’ (texturing belts) can at times test the skills of language experts like Terés. In many cases there simply isn’t a Spanish equivalent to precisely describe the meaning, and sometimes even Google is at a loss. “When this happens, I need the customer to provide me with a precise explanation of what the word I need to translate actually means. Sometimes I create entirely new terms that reflect the meaning in a comprehensible form.” In these cases the translator becomes a coiner of phrases – which comes with a lot of responsibility.

Spanish makes less into more

The industrial sector relies on translations from German into Spanish. So standards are high – and the translations frequently tricky. Compound nouns are among the many obstacles, explains Terés: “German words can be practically endless. Sometimes I need three, four or even five Spanish words just for one German term.” It might even be seven – for instance to describe the ‘Speisewasseraufbereitungsanlage’ (feed water treatment plant), which in Spanish becomes ‘Planta de preparación del agua de alimentación’. Or the two German words ‘prozessbedingte Schweißrauchablagerungen’ (process-related welding fume deposits) – that need ten for an adequate equivalent in Spanish: ‘sedimento de los humos de soldadura producidos durante el proceso’. It simply cannot be made any shorter.

“Often I need three, four or even five Spanish words just for one German term.”
Marta Terés

Two very different languages

Translation professionals working from German into Spanish find more than just the rising word count challenging. There are also plenty of differences in the grammatical structures in the two languages. “You can construct your sentences differently in German, by starting the sentence with a verb or attribute for instance. That’s not possible in Spanish.” What that means: Literal translations that otherwise work quite well between French and Spanish, are almost unheard-of between German and Spanish. “Usually it would be gobbledygook”, says the translation professional. Therefore: It takes quite a lot of effort to translate between German and Spanish: Sentences need to be interpreted correctly in their original context, then built from scratch and adapted to suit the tone of the text.

‘Please’ is quite unusual in Spanish

Translation professionals like Marta Terés are just as skilled at recognizing the nuances of language. Like the question of ‘por favor’: In Germany it is customary to add a polite ‘bitte’ (please) to any request. Therefore, foreigners speaking Spanish will frequently end their sentences with ‘por favor’ – incorrectly, as Terés explains: “It is disconcerting to pepper Spanish sentences with ‘por favor’, not polite. Unlike German, it is even customary to leave out the ‘please’ when providing instructions.” So ‘Bitte lesen Sie die Bedienungsanleitung durch.’ (Please consult the manual) becomes ‘Lea el manual de instrucciones’ – without ‘por favor’.

The meaning shifts in Spanish

Spanish is mainly spoken in Spain and South America. In these regions there are important differences between the dialects andshifts in meaning. Professional translators need to know what these are. For instance: Spaniards would find nothing amiss about frequently using the word ‘coger’ for ‘to take’ . But the word is by no means as innocent in Latin America: There it is used as an obscene expression for sex. They replace ‘coger’ with ‘tomar’. Another example: In Spain, a pretty girl would be called ‘una chica guapa’, while people in Latin America tend to use ‘bonito/-a’ or ‘lindo/-a’ for pretty or beautiful. Argentinians or Cubans would take ‘una chica guapa’ to mean a ‘plucky girl’. And a native of Chile would take cover. Here, ‘una chica guapa’ means: an ‘angry girl’. Altogether the language can be a bit of a minefield. So it’s a blessing to have a language professional who knows where the dangers are lurking.

Marta Terés

Professional Translator

Marta Terés was born in Barcelona, moved to Germany after graduating and has now translated from English, French and German into Spanish for over five years.

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