What is International Spanish?

One of my clients, who I have been working with for quite a while, recently decided to stop translating into Spanish for Spain and start translating into International Spanish. Aside from the challenges that this poses for me as a translator, the decision made me think. What is even International Spanish? Does it exist or is it a myth?

The RAE (Real Academia de la Lengua Española), which is the body that regulates the use of Spanish language, certainly doesn’t refer to International Spanish, even if it does differentiate between Castilian Spanish and American Spanish (which encompasses both the Spanish used in the US and in Latin American countries).

But what do people actually mean when they talk about International Spanish? Although the debate keeps raging on, I am of the opinion that International Spanish doesn’t exist, that is has been made up in order to facilitate communication across digital channels, and may I say so, to reduce translation costs in some cases. International Spanish is meant to be a kind of neutral Spanish which all fairly educated Spanish speakers will be able to understand no matter where they come from, and which avoids regional variations and local terminology and grammar which can be confusing, sound unnatural or even be offensive in other Spanish-speaking markets.

I can understand the case for International Spanish. After all, it’s the second most-spoken language in the world. Over 400 million people speak Spanish as a native language in no less than 31 countries, so it would be hard to localise content for each one of those countries. However, it’s precisely because of this wide range of speakers that it is just not possible to adopt one type of Spanish that all speakers will find natural.

Every country is different and so is its culture. Even basic words can change across locales. For instance, “car” is “coche” in Spain, whereas in many Latin American countries it’s “carro”, which in Spain refers to a horse cart. “Bicho” in a bug in Spain, but it can also be a naughty child, whereas it Costa Rica saying someone is a “bicho” at something it means they’re very good at it, and in Puerto Rico it refers to the male sexual organ. Then there is the word “chongo”, which refers to a one-armed person in Chile, a type of hair style in Mexico, a tame horse in Puerto Rico and a lover in Argentina. And that doesn’t even cover grammar, sentence structure and slang/common expressions.

Then there are also stereotypes. For example, in Spain, Latin American accents have long been ridiculed, especially from countries like Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia, one reason being the TV programmes from those countries that have been broadcasted in Spain. Although nowadays people are more accepting, there are still a lot of political and immigration issues that shape the way Spaniards think of Latin Americans, and despite the fact that opinions can vary widely and some other accents like Argentinian and Cuban carry more positive stereotypes, most customers in Spain will not react well if you try to market your products to them using a Latin American variant.

So even when trying to use the so-called International Spanish variant and keep the language as neutral as possible, there will be significant differences across the countries and the text will not sound completely natural in any of the markets. Therefore, in order to achieve true engagement and realise your full potential in those markets, it is always best to localise your material for the particular locale you are trying to target. If, understandably, localising for 31 markets seems like an overwhelming prospect, the best solution is to research what markets will be mostly beneficial to you and stick to those.