Usted, Tú, Vos: Difficulty in English-to-Spanish Translation

Spanish is much more complex than the layman realizes and its structure varies greatly from one country to another.  The vocabulary, idioms and even grammatical forms are very different in Spain and Mexico, for example – lo pasé bien in Spain is la pasé bien in Mexico. Choosing the correct target audience and taking these subtleties and gradations into account and are keys to successful English-to-Spanish translation.

One of the elements of Español that varies greatly across languages and borders is the use of pronouns – usted, tú and vos. Could anything be more important to a sentence than the pronoun?  This particular grammatical element is absolutely vital and yet its application is very culture-specific. Though we do not have this distinction in English, yet it is possible to appreciate the difference in tone between ‘you guys’ and ‘you’. When addressing someone more formally it’s dubious that you’d ask, “So how are you guys doing today?” The formal and informal tone is even more developed in Spanish and is nuanced exclusively in each hispanohablante (Spanish speaking) country.

In Spain, for example, tú has become common place and usted is fading out of communication. This is a recent phenomenon in Spain – dating back to the 1930s when social equality took on new importance in the shifting political landscape of the country. Before the 30s, students at the university would refer to each other as usted; tú was for God, the family and intimacy. Over the next numerous decades, it became increasingly more commonplace to refer to friends as tú. Grandparents, professors and other respected professionals followed suit and finally total strangers were given the tuteo in the previous decade. The higher the social rank, the more tú has come taken over. Today it would be quite odd to call a friend usted in Spain.

By contrast, in Colombia, usted is often used among family members and friends to express trust, intimacy, solidarity and confidence.  Brothers will call each other usted – which to an outside observer from Madrid would make them seem like strangers from another era.  The use of tú is a bit more frequent among women and higher social classes but in general, usted is the default pronoun in Colombia.

The equation gets more complicated when you add vos. Vos is from Old Spanish and can be heard in isolated areas of Spain and Colombia but is more collective in countries like Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay where it has entirely replaced tú in the written word.

In Guatemala, vos is used between a man and a woman who have established a relationship but as they are getting to know each other, they’ll use tú. In Nicuaragua, vos is informal and usted is formal; tú is basically extinct. The same goes for Costa Rica where tú is avoided completely.

The map of pronoun usage is even more multifaceted when you consider modifications within a given country linked to social status, sex and geography. This is certainly something to take into concern as a traveler but the incentives are higher if you are taking your business global and need a culturally proper message for each country you plan to target.

Given the lack of a worldwide standard for pronoun usage in Spanish, the goal of creating a message that will reflect the same emotional and cultural weight in every country is ambitious. Localization, which goes beyond translation, is necessary to fine-tune your message to specific countries, keeping in mind these very pronounced linguistic differences.

At the very least, investing in effective localization will spare you the embarrassment of committing tiny linguistic blunders or transmitting a bland message that is either irrelevant or incomprehensible. Everyone needs a translation partner today to learn how to best localize website, ad campaigns, marketing docs and e-commerce platform to the various Spanish-speaking markets. You will see that getting your pronouns right will lead to success!

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