Posted on Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Category: Etymology, Technology, Translation
How do you translate a word for which there is simply no known equivalent in the target language?
This is a question that translators are facing more frequently than ever before, thanks in part to the effects of the internet (something which you can blame for pretty much anything these days).
New Technology Creates Need for New Words
Translating languages has long led to the creation of new words — this in itself is not a new phenomenon. Previously when translators couldn’t find an equivalent word in the target language, they had little choice but to come up with a new word.
The need for new words would often be aligned with cultural or social phenomena. The case of the English-language “recycle” being adapted to the Spanish “reciclar,” is one example.
The technology boom of the last two decades created all kinds of new gadgets which, in turn, required a whole new set of vocabulary words.
Take “Twitter,” “Google” and “texting,” for example, words that were once fairly innocuous but now rank among the most popular words of the decade.
Most of these words started out as slang. We were using “google” and “blog” as verbs long before either word made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. In other cases, we’ve transferred words from written technologies (like texting) into our spoken language – literally saying “LOL,” for instance, although this is mostly reserved for teenage use.
A Slang Translation How-To
The problem with translating slang, be it tech-related or otherwise, is that if the word is fresh enough, there is unlikely to be any reliable go-to guide for translators to turn to. In some cases, the translator may not know the meaning of the word himself and will have to do some cultural research just to figure out what it means in the original source language.
Urban Dictionary might be a helpful (if not totally reliable) source for the English language, but it’s doubtful that every language has a similar resource.
So what’s a translator faced with an unfamiliar slang term to do? Although the internet and its sister technologies can in part be blamed for the never-ending inundation of slang entering the language, it ironically can also serve as a solution for translators stuck in a slang translation rut.
The internet is the forum for new language, thanks to blogs, websites and chat forums which let anyone participate, thus ensuring that any hip new words can spread among the masses faster than ever before. It’s not uncommon for a translator to turn to a search engine when all other linguistic resources and references have failed — but is this a good idea?
The Real Power Players in Slang Translation
A translator might translate and introduce a new slang word into a language, but it’s the language’s speakers who will decide if that word stays or goes. The general public is the real power players when deciding word use — like word invention, slang’s success is a popularity contest.
So when it comes down to it, translators have a lot of freedom when deciding how to convey slang, be it a direct adaptation or a totally new word creation like the Ukrainian “dulya,” slang for “force quit” (Read this BBC article for the word’s hilarious history).
But whether or not their slang translation will stick is a question that can only be answered with time.