Spanish surnames can often be a source of confusion for those not familiar with their structure and they way they're formed.
I remember when I first started studying Spanish and was introduced to last names in Spanish. For some reason I had the hardest time figuring it out.
"Why are there two last names?," I wondered on more than one occasion.
It wasn't until I had spent some time in Latin America (Ecuador to be exact) that it finally clicked and I understood how most Spanish names (both first and last) were formed.
So what's the secret?
If you're the person that is trying to figure this out, how do you go about it?
Well, the first thing to remember is that it's not necessarily difficult to figure out, it's just different. For many people in English-speaking countries, the tradition has been for the wife to take the last name of the husband and then any child born to that couple would have the last name of the father.
Granted this isn't always the case and there are always exceptions to this, but there's no argument that this has been the traditional way surnames were passed down from one generation to another in English-speaking locations.
In Spanish, there is also a traditional rule that is followed in most Spanish-speaking countries, but again, there are exceptions to this rule.
So what's the rule?
Well, again, traditionally the way that surnames have been passed on is that a person would normally have a first name, a possible middle name, and two surnames. The first surname would be the father's surname, while the second surname would be the mother's surname (this name is the surname passed down from her father).
OK, let's look at an example.
Let's say that there's a guy named Mario Lopez Antonio Banderas. He's married to a girl named Selma Hayek Selena Quintanilla. In this example, Antonio would most likely be the surname of Mario's father, and Banderas would be his mother's surname. Same with Selma: Selena would be her father's surname while Quintanilla would be the surname of her mother.
Now if they decided to have a kid and named her Shakira Domingo as her (composite) first name, then her surname would most probably be Antonio Selena, thereby making her full name Shakira Domingo Antonio Selena.
But then again, rules are made to be broken and this isn't always going to be the case 100% of the time. This is especially the case when Latinos move to English-speaking countries like the United States where the naming customs are different. Many times, the couple will keep the custom of having two surnames, but oftentimes people will change the custom to conform to the traditional English style of having one surname, and will usually assign the father's surname to a child born.
Why are Surnames Important in Translation?
So if this site is all about Spanish translation, why then is it so important to know about Spanish surnames?
Well, one of the main reasons is because as translators we should have an excellent grasp of the culture we're translating. And naming conventions are definitely part of culture.
Translators most of the time don't translate names. However, there are times when it's important that we know what those names and how they might fit into the overall meaning and structure of a document. If we lack a clear understanding of those naming conventions, it would be very easy to miss something in translation.
Another important reason to know about Spanish surnames, and why it could be useful to have a list of them is in case you do any transcription. I don't talk about transcription too much on this site since it's devoted to the business of freelance translation, but I have had experience in the past with transcribing Spanish speakers.
And I will say that while I consider my Spanish to be good, there were plenty of times when I just couldn't quite catch everything that a particular Spanish speaker would be saying. And while I could get most words, some of the hardest ones to get were the names.
Names can be hard because they're not spoken as often as commonly-spoken words, so when a name comes up that you're not necessarily quite familiar with, it can be tough to decipher.
And that's one of the reasons I've decided to put out this list of Spanish surnames below. At least here you can have a ready reference of names that you can consult in case you are called to transcribe someone that might reference a Spanish last name.
The list below is a list of the most common Spanish surnames in the United States. Of course there are many last names in Spanish that aren't included in this list, but this list will get you started at least.