Guest post: Lost in Romance – translating language differences to the wider world

optical communicationIn a first for this blog, I’m publishing a guest post written by Paul Sawers of translation company Lingo24. Paul talks about the joys of the Romance language family and Lingo24’s experience of working with them, in particular the importance of localisation and explaining the finer points of these languages to uninitiated clients. I hope to publish more posts by Paul in future, and welcome suggestions as to possible topics. For starters, I’m throwing ‘advice to new translators seeking clients: a translation company’s perspective’ into the ring.

While there may be around 7,000 distinct languages in the world today, many of them descend from the same roots and therefore share many similar characteristics.

Romance languages, for example, comprise all languages that have descended from Latin, and today equate to 700 million native speakers across the globe.

And this goes at least some way towards explaining why over a third of Lingo24’s translation projects contain at least one Romance language, with French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian ranking among the most commonly requested translations.

When is a rare language not a rare language?

Among the rarer Romance languages we’ve been asked to translate include Catalan and Galician, although between them they still have around 15 million native speakers.

Then there is the often-overlooked Romance language that isn’t all that rare at all. Romanian – spoken by around 30 million people worldwide (the majority of whom live in Romania, might I add) – is the 34th most commonly spoken language in the world.

However, there are an estimated 47 Romance languages and associated dialects spoken throughout Europe, from the Swiss vernacular Romansh, with around 36,000 native speakers, to the Walloon language, spoken by some 600,000 people, located largely in Belgium.

Just how close is this language family?

As all translators will know, it takes a considerable amount of time and effort to learn a second language. But with genetically-related languages such as Romance, there is often a certain degree of mutual intelligibility that aids understanding between the two languages.

The word ‘black’, for instance, can be ‘negre’ (Catalan), ‘noir’ (French), ‘negro’ (Galician/Spanish), ‘nero’ (Italian/Venetian), ‘neir’ (Piedmontese) or ‘negru’ (Romanian). And the word ‘shop’ can be ‘magazin’ (Romanian) or ‘magasin’ (French).

Of course, there are always the infamous false-friends that come along and ruin the show, such as ‘carte’ which could refer to a ‘book’ if you’re in Romania, or a map/card/ticket if you are in France.

Spanish and Portuguese, in particular, are similar to the point of having a significant degree of mutual intelligibility for speakers of these languages. And to make matters worse, they can look almost identical on paper to those who have had little exposure to either language.

And this caused Lingo24 a little bit of bother recently, after being asked to carry out an English to Spanish AND Portuguese translation.

After receiving the translated and fully proofread texts from us, the client asked if they could be reviewed again, as the translations seemed identical to each other!

However, this is not too uncommon, whereby we have to explain the subtle differences between two seemingly identical languages. But fortunately, most of our clients are only too happy to take the advice of an experienced translation company.

This can often mean explaining to clients the importance of using, for example, a Latin American Spanish translator over a Spanish translator. Although this news normally goes down rather well, given that it is generally cheaper to translate into Latin American Spanish than it is Spanish.

Similarly, we are often asked to translate between French and Canadian French, Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese and even non-Romance languages such as UK and US English. The importance of localisation in a translation can never be understated, and this is a message that seems to be catching on across most industries.

Of course, whilst nobody can be held personally accountable for any similarities that exist between two Romance languages such as Spanish and Portuguese, it does serve as a timely reminder that, at a time when globalisation is one of the biggest business buzzwords, it certainly pays to be wary of the more subtle cultural and linguistic differences.

© Paul Sawers



  1. Now the question of website localization is a quite vital. And this is really very important. The Internet audience should have an opportunity to understand all the materials they need without any additional efforts.

  2. Hi

    Thank you for sharing very informative article. Looking forward to read few more articles of yours.


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