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Should: A simple verb that presents a challenge to a good Spanish translation

7/24/2013 by Susana Schultz

We use “should” all day long. Our clients use it in their English materials all the time. Most of us think that it is indicating a suggestion. In English, the intent doesn’t affect orthography because “should” is “should” regardless of the intent of the writer. The form doesn’t change. But when you are working on a Spanish translation, or on any other romance language, the intent of the English does matter and we should be very aware of it so we can use the correct tense in the target language.

If you check Merriam-Webster, this is what you will find for should:
1: used in auxiliary function to express condition
2: used in auxiliary function to express obligation, propriety, or expediency
3: used in auxiliary function to express futurity from a point of view in the past
4: used in auxiliary function to express what is probable or expected
5: used in auxiliary function to express a request in a polite manner or to soften direct statement

A vast majority of the materials we all translate are Human Resource materials, including employee training, employee manuals, inter-office memos. Intent is critical. I would go as far as to say the intent of the use of “should” in those cases corresponds to the meanings on 2 and 5 above.
When a restaurant manual says, “You should wash your hands after using the bathroom,” it is not “suggesting” but “mandating” that you wash your hands. So, when we translate, there is a tendency to go towards “debería” instead of “debe,” but there is no question that “debe” is the correct way to interpret the English’s intent.

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