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03/21/07

English-Spanish translation pitfalls #2

English and Spanish are different. Hardly a surprise, right? But they are different in many ways that sometimes can go unnoticed, especially if you are so focused on the original English text that you fail to step back and think: wait, this is not how I would express myself in Spanish if I wasn't translating...

One of these important differences is in the use of personal pronouns. While in English we use them very often, this is not the case in Spanish. There is a reason for this. Let's take a look at conjugation for a common verb, like "say" ("decir" in Spanish):

I say
You say
He/she says
We say
You say
They say

Yo digo
Tú dices
Él/ella/usted dice
Nosotros decimos
Vosotros decís
Ellos/ellas/ustedes dicen

It becomes clear that personal pronouns are essential in English in order to specify which person is "saying" something or performing any other action. However, in Spanish we can easily stick to:

Digo
Dices
Dice
Decimos
Decís
Dicen

Since all of these verb forms are different in writing and pronunciation, we really do not need the pronouns to specify the person performing the action. Every verb form already provides this information.

This is why in Spanish we rarely use personal pronouns in a text or in oral speech. We do use them for emphasis, or when the context may lead to confusion if we didn't use a personal pronoun. However, most of the time, the verb form alone is enough (and more than this is considered poor, unnatural style.)

English example: I think they noticed that we didn't attend.
Personal pronouns: 3
Spanish translation: Creo que se dieron cuenta de que no asistimos.
Personal pronouns: 0!

The alternative translation with all personal pronouns "Yo creo que ellos se dieron cuenta de que nosotros no asistimos", even though grammatically correct, is really a pain to read or hear, and is anything but natural in Spanish...

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