Translations between English and Spanish: the Definite Article

While a translation between English and Spanish might seem relatively easy, with both languages sharing many of the same structures, there is enough nuance that it’s easy for non-professionals to make a mistake.

Let’s take the definite article “the” for example. It’s translated in singular as “el” for masculine, “la” for feminine, and in plural as “los” for masculine and “las” for feminine. It’s just a matter of of adjusting according to gender and number, right?

Actually, no. While the definite article “the” is used for specific things or persons (among others), it turns out that what is specific in one language might not be specific in another. For example, in English you’d say “I like cars,” in Spanish you’d say “I like the cars.” Often, Spanish-speaking translators and students, when told that they have to use “the” only when talking about specific things or people, they tend to say things like “I like the big cars.” In their minds, they are not talking about all cars, but specific cars (only big cars).

The solution is to use the definite article “the” when both the speaker and the listener know what specific cars they are talking about or they can identify them. For example, “I like the car that Robert has.” In this example, the speaker and the listener know who Robert is and thus they can identify the car, even if the listener hasn’t seen Robert’s car. This is a very nuanced concept and it can be very hard for non-experienced translators to apply it correctly.

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