Asociación Argentina de Traductores

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How to Deal with Neologisms

By Lic., Tr. & Prof. Hugh Torres


Technical and scientific texts often incorporate neologisms. A neologism is a recently coined linguistic item born from development and invention.

In the modern world, English-speaking countries have been for some time at the head of research. Hence, most present-day neologisms are coined in English and sooner or later get into other languages in different ways.

For the technical-scientific English-Spanish translator, neologisms are one of the most common sources of translation problems as the pace of dictionary editing does not always meet the swiftness of the advances in science and technology. Therefore, at the moment of translating a neologism, there are often no dictionaries to help and no evidence of the neologism ever being used in previous translations.

The crux of the translation problem of neologisms is to find a linguistic item in Spanish that will be readily accepted by prospective readers (some of which might be familiar with the neologism in its English form). But, deprived of reference texts that might suggest an equivalent in the target language, the translator is left alone with his/her common sense and few basic strategies that are explained below.

In the quest for an acceptable equivalent to a neologism, the translator may choose to take any of the following courses of action.

First, if the English neologism conforms to the morphological standards of Spanish, it can be transferred. That is, the translator may reproduce it as it is spelt in English. For example, chat as 'chat' (i.e. conferencia virtual); fanzine as 'fanzine' (i.e. historieta artesanal).

If the neologism is 'unreadable' in Spanish, its adaptation to suit the morphology of the target language may be considered. For example, as all Spanish verbs end in 'ar', 'ir' or 'er', the English verb 'randomise' becomes randomisar (i.e. seleccionar al azar). And, as there are no final consonantal clusters in Spanish, the neologism 'genomics' becomes genómica (i.e. disciplina vástago de la genética, que estudia los genomas), replacing 's' for 'a' in order to break the cluster.

In other cases, the neologism may be translated by creating a new collocation or combination of existing Spanish linguistic items. For example, 'plug mill' as laminador cerrado sobre mandril; 'gelva' as acetato de polivinilo. The Spanish versions of the English neologisms 'plug mill' and 'gelva' use existent Spanish words, newly arranged to express the meaning of the novel source text terms.

Finally, it is also possible for the translator to 'invent' a Spanish linguistic item to cipher the idea concealed in the neologism. For example, 'konk' as ratear (i.e. preparar un motor); 'freecutting' as maquinabilidad (i.e. cualidad de los metales que permite que sean bien trabajados en una máquina). The 'invented' items often feed on standard Spanish roots (rata and máquina, in our examples), and on the Spanish norms of compounding and derivation.

No matter what course of action the translator chooses to take, it is always advisable that a gloss should accompany the Spanish version of the neologism on its first occurrence, especially when the meaning of the neologism is not unveiled by the context or the translation itself.

The gloss can take the form of a footnote, a note or a parenthetical remark, usually a short phrase that tells in plain language what the new item means.

Footnotes are inserted at the bottom of the page on which the neologism is found, preceded by an asterisk, a letter or a number of reference to the item in question. Notes are listed at the end of the translation after a number or a letter of reference that coincides with the one placed after the item. Parenthetical remarks appear immediately after the item, generally enclosed by round brackets or dashes.

In all cases, the gloss should be preceded by 'N. T.:' or 'N. del T.:' or 'Nota del Traductor:' to warn the reader that the gloss belongs to the translator and not to the author of the source version.

It is worth noting that translators may resort to keeping the English neologism between parenthesis by the side of the Spanish equivalent. For example: Una de las opciones del portfolio es la inversión de tranca (ratchet) que permite asegurar el capital en un porcentaje idéntico al porcentaje de utilidades.

In the preceding quotation the business English neologism 'ratchet' has been incorporated into the translation in order to facilitate the understanding of inversión de tranca to those readers that are familiar with ratchet investment through transactions in English.

Recapitulating, when confronted with a neologism, the translator may transfer it, adapt it, create a new collocation of existing target language items or invent a new linguistic item in Spanish. On its first occurence, the translator should clarify the meaning of the Spanish equivalent unless the new item is self-explanatory or explained within the text.