An Interview with Reinhold Werner

By Rudy Heller (English translation by Andre Moskowitz)

Reinhold Werner, Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Augsburg, Germany, was the Spanish Language Division’s special guest speaker at the 42nd Annual ATA Conference in Los Angeles, California. The interview was conducted in Spanish by Rudy Heller, administrator of ATA’s Spanish Language Division, and has been translated into English by Andre Moskowitz.

RH: At the first talk you gave in Los Angeles, no answer was given to the title of the presentation: Into what variety of Spanish should one translate in the United States? Does this question have an answer?

RW: There is no single recipe. At best, the answer may be a list of criteria that need to be taken into account. In choosing the language I use in my message, I must take into consideration how important the target audience is versus how important the client is. The person who hires you to do the translation is often someone other than the target audience.

There may also be more complicated situations in which you have different target audiences with different levels of understanding. For example, people from different countries with different educational levels. In these cases, you have to find a solution that may entail using language that is more neutral. Of course, one must ask “what does ‘neutral’ mean?”

RH: How do you define it?

RW: One is never completely neutral. By neutral, I mean the ability to find common denominators, to avoid language that is very specific to one variety or another, and to always try to use language that is common to a majority of the target audience. Thus, it is not a neutral style or a neutral register, but rather the broadest common denominator.

RH: What role can “Spanglish” play?

RW: I think we need to be very careful with that term because it is not very clearly defined. Spanglish was originally conceived as a battle cry and was criticized. Lately, the trend has been just the opposite – to promote its use. One shouldn’t be afraid of creating a variety of Spanish that is specific to the United States. I believe it is inevitable, and even necessary, to create a vocabulary for the U.S.’s own realities and concepts. Of course, the first denominations for these objects, for these realities, and for these concepts were created in English. It would be very artificial to avoid using loanwords or calques from English. This must be accepted.

The other issue associated with “Spanglish” is that it is a very restricted and poor code, stemming from the mixture of English and Spanish elements in particular social situations. It is both a reduced Spanish and a reduced English. That should not be the goal. Although one should not be afraid of English-language influence when it is necessary to name concepts that are particular to this country, language shouldn’t be reduced by whittling away its vocabulary just to make it easier. The mixture of languages should contribute to their enrichment through mutual influence, not to their impoverishment.

RH: Are there other places, other areas of the world, where something similar takes place? But saying le weekend in French is quite different from saying vacunar la carpeta in Spanish. In le weekend, at least the full English word was adopted…but in Spanglish, what is often done is to invent a word, to “Spanishize” an English word when there is already a proper term or phrase for it.

RW: Yes, to a certain extent it happens all over the world. English is omnipresent. We have a strong English-language influence in German, also in Peninsular Spanish, and in French. Spanglish has developed parallel to the Franglais of the French. To an even greater extent, we also have this problem in many societies of the developing world. This is the case in societies that are not bilingual but multilingual (such as India and the Philippines), in places where the languages spoken are much less similar and have different historical backgrounds, and where the use of one language or another is much more closely related to one’s membership in a particular social group.


RW: The concept of a weekend did not exist. It was new. Because, in theory, there is an end to the week. Everything has an end. Here you can really see how one language has influenced another. In the background is another ideological world, another worldview, because the weekend is Saturday plus Sunday, which is a rather recent concept. It used to be that one was only assured of being able to rest on Sundays, and this idea of the “weekend,” which includes having Saturday off, was a gift. This is something that comes from the North American world.

RH: You addressed a topic in your presentation that I would like you to expand on a little. Please begin with the definition of “isogloss.”

RW: “Isogloss” is a term that comes from traditional dialectology, in which the goal is to delimit dialectal regions. One asks the question, where does one dialect start and another end? Linguistic atlases, generally based on different types of surveys, are drawn up. You find out how people say something in Town A or Town B. There is an entire network of points in a region, and at each point (location) you find out how people speak in terms of phonology, syntax, and lexicon. Then a comparison is made, and often the entire region can be divided up into different subregions. A subregion is where people speak a certain way, for example, using a certain word for something that is referred to by a different word in another part of the same region. The line that can be drawn between the two subregions is called the isogloss. On one side, for example, people pronounce the Spanish letter ll like the lli in “million,” and on the other side, they pronounce it another way (for example, like the y in “canyon” or the g in “prestige”). The lines that separate the areas where the letter ll is pronounced two different ways are called isoglosses. Similarly, in Colombia, for example, there are areas where people still use the word aguacate for “avocado,” and other areas of the country, such as in Pasto, where people now use the word palta. And there are other areas, for instance, a small region where the word cura is used in this sense. It seems that Colombia is the only place where cura is used that way. The lines, the borders, that divide one region from another are the isoglosses.

RH: In other words, the “isogloss” is always a geographic designation.

RW: The term comes from linguistic geography, from dialectology.

RH: In discussing this subject, you also spoke about diastratic differences…

RW: Yes, I discussed the terms diatopical, diastratic, diachronic, and diaphasic. These terms come from structural linguistics, which was first developed by Ferdinand de Saussure and other European linguists and later by North American linguists. Saussure distinguished between diachronic and synchronic linguistics. Before Saussure, people mostly did diachronic linguistic studies, which focused on linguistic changes over time. Saussure introduced synchronic linguistics on a large scale, so it no longer compared different periods in the history of a language, but focused on the way a language worked at a particular moment in time. Thus, when you consider a language at a particular moment in time, you are doing a synchronic study, that is, of the same time. When you compare different periods, you are doing a diachronic study.

Later, following the diachronic and synchronic models, other terms were introduced. For example, when a linguistic comparison is made among different varieties or different dialects (dialects in the sense of linguistic geography), you use the term “diatopical.” A diatopical study is one in which you examine and compare data from different parts of a linguistic region. For example, in Spain, comparing the Spanish of Andalucía to that of Castilla or, in Colombia, comparing the speech of Pasto to that of Bogotá. This would be a diatopical study. And you can do the same thing by focusing on social criteria. For example, a diastratic study would be when data from the speech of one social group is compared to the speech of another. And finally, the term diaphasic was introduced. This refers to different registers and different styles, but, in this case, it may be the same person who speaks in different registers. In other words, one speaks differently depending on the situation. When I speak to my friends, I speak differently than when I speak in an official situation. The register I use also varies depending on the form or medium. For example, the language I use when writing a letter is different from the way I write an e-mail message. This type of comparison is called diaphasic.

RH: So would “diaphasic” be equivalent to “register”?

RW: Well, the term register is more traditional and always assumes a clear cut hierarchy (starting from the top at the high register, then going down to a normal or neutral register, and from there down to registers such as familiar, slang, and vulgar). When you talk about diaphasic, you can focus on a whole range of factors. Who am I talking to, in what situation, and in what medium am I speaking or writing? It is a combination of factors and has no hierarchy. When you talk about registers you are immediately placing them into a hierarchy. That is, a neutral register is better than a vulgar register, although, of course, a low or vulgar register may be very appropriate in certain situations, much more so than a neutral register. If you want to insult someone, you often use a vulgar register. But when you talk about registers you are always making an assumption that one register is better than another, and you also somewhat confuse diastratic and diaphasic factors.

RH: I am asking you about this precisely because translators face this a lot here. We are often required to use a register (at least that’s how it’s called here within the translation industry), and are told to “keep the register at a very low educational level.” There is this notion out there that the reader has a very low level of knowledge. We see that people often write in an English that lacks formality. Writing is reduced to the lowest level, much lower – many of us believe – than what we feel Spanish should be written in.

RW: There you have it. One must also distinguish between social factors and situational factors…

RH: And educational factors…

RW: And educational factors, and many others. Because, of course, it may be fine for you to use the language of a particular social group to make yourself understood, but that does not automatically mean you have to speak in a less formal style. When all is said and done, it depends on what you’re writing. We write certain things in a particular style and that helps us recognize immediately what type of message it is. For example, a business letter is written in a particular style, and if we change its register, it is no longer a business letter and we do not achieve our objective. Thus, with every type of text there is always a tradition in the way things are formulated. If I don’t follow that tradition, I may also cause comprehension problems because the person I am addressing will say, “what the heck is this?” They won’t identify the type of message. There is almost always a struggle between a desire for ease of comprehension and a desire for accuracy. If I lower the register, I may also reduce the accuracy. There is a certain vocabulary that is appropriate for speaking accurately about certain realities: scientific terminology, technical terminology, legal, or administrative terminology. If I change the vocabulary used for a more common one simply because I am afraid someone won’t understand me, then I run the risk of not calling things by their name. As a result, the message becomes more vague.

The translator has the task of trying to transmit a message that, to the extent possible, will be understood at the target audience’s comprehension level. On the other hand, the target audience also has a job. Your reader or listener will sometimes have to make an effort to understand the message. For example, I must write legal texts using legal language, even though legal terminology causes problems, because if I eliminate the legal terms and replace them with terms from everyday language, they are no longer precise. As a result, I may create legal problems, because the terms are not unambiguous. I must maintain the legal language even though the other person may not understand it right away. In this case, the target audience has the task of trying to decipher it. It depends a lot on the situation, but there are cases where I cannot lower the degree of precision, and therefore must write using difficult language.

Reinhold Werner is a professor of applied linguistics in the Department of Romance Languages at the University of Augsburg, Germany. He is also the director of the university’s Foreign Language Center and its Instituto de Investigaciones sobre España y América Latina. Professor Werner has published extensively in the areas of languages in contact, lexicography, and lexicology. He holds a Ph.D. in romance philology from the University of Salzburg and a “Habilitation” degree in romance philology and applied linguistics from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. (A “Habilitation” degree is a second doctoral degree that is earned after a Ph.D. at many European universities.) He is a corresponding member of the Academia Colombiana de la Lengua and the Academia Peruana de la Lengua. He is also the director of the journal Lebende Sprachen (Berlin/Munich, Germany) and the book series Aspectos de Lingüística Aplicada (Frankfurt am Main/Madrid), and is on the editorial boards of the journals Revista de Lexicografía (La Coruña, Spain) and Lexis (Lima, Peru). Contact:

1 The original Spanish-language version of this interview was published in the February 2002 issue of Intercambios, the quarterly newsletter of ATA’s Spanish Language Division. Andre Moskowitz translated it into English and it was published in the July 2002 issue of The ATA Chronicle. This revised version has been reprinted with permission from the ATA.

2 While Sunday is the traditional day of rest in the Christian world, Friday is the day of rest and prayer for Muslims (the Juma’a), and the Jewish sabbath is on Saturday. Note that the words for
Saturday in Italian and Spanish are sábato and sábado, respectively, which derive from the Hebrew word.