23 November 2023

New words, new challenges:
how a transcreator translates newly developed words and terms

New words, new challenges:<br/> <strong>how a transcreator translates newly developed words and terms</strong>

Language is a dynamic entity, constantly evolving and expanding with the creation of new words and terms. Technological advancements, cultural shifts and societal trends are just some of the factors which necessitate these linguistic innovations. For a translator or transcreator, newly coined words present a unique challenge. In this article, we’ll explore some of the strategies and techniques linguists when working with new terms in translation and localization services.


Same words, every language

The first step in translating newly created words is understanding the context in which they are used. Linguists need to be familiar with the cultural, social, and technological nuances that gave rise to these new terms. This understanding is crucial in finding an equivalent in the target language that carries the same connotations and implications, and which will fit with the tone of the content, as well as being appropriate for its target audience.

The overwhelming majority of new words are English. In many cases, linguists will choose to borrow the word directly, especially if it refers to a universal concept or a global trend. These borrowed words, or loanwords, are then integrated into the target language with minimal changes. This strategy is particularly common in languages like Japanese and Korean, which frequently adopt English terms related to technology and pop culture. Arguably this approach can de-personalize language in a broader sense, and many linguists will strive for a new word in their language to maintain relevancy.


Technical translation – languages within languages

Linguists whose work focuses on translating highly specialized technical or scientific material can face the dilemma of new terms every day. When new technology is invented, or a new drug developed, the originators coin the term then, when translation is required, linguists must liaise with the original stakeholders to conceive of a term in their own language which satisfies the original precepts.

As already noted, modern linguistic tendency leans towards borrowing the new word from the originator’s language which dispenses with the difficulty and complexity of creating a new word in the target language. However, many linguists strive against this global homogenizing of language, fearing that their native languages and cultures can suffer from a ‘left behind’ syndrome, as languages such as English lap up all the advances in technology and medicine, for example, by stamping their linguistic mark on innovation.


Linguistic responsibility

In the pre-digital age of the early 1990s, considering the translation of new terms required a different approach. One of Alpha CRC’s senior linguists, Robert Ertl, who translates English into German, came up against this challenge time and again when he worked for a press agency associated with the EU. Researching anything was a slow and limited process. Without the massive resource of the internet, machine translation, LLM and neural networks, translators had only physical dictionaries and each other to rely on.

Thanks to a pressurized environment and the need for a fast turnaround, Robert recounts that, at the press agency, he often had to rely on his instincts and make speedy decisions. Often, the word chosen as a translation in that moment would be the one which entered mainstream language, meaning that, despite the speed with which he was required to work, he had to make some weighty, sometimes impactful, linguistic decisions.


Money speaks the same language

Numeric figures are the same in most (but not all) languages, and we are increasingly seeing the lexicon that surrounds them in the financial industries become universalized too. The term “Fintech,” a portmanteau of “financial technology,” is widely used in many languages to describe the industry that applies new technological advancements to financial services and products, and is commonly understood across most non-English speaking countries in those sectors.

For example:
• French: Fintech (often used as is, but sometimes expanded to “technologie financière”)
• Spanish: Fintech (also commonly used as is, but can be referred to as “tecnología financiera”)
• German: Fintech (the term is used directly, but “Finanztechnologie” is the full German term)
• Chinese (Simplified): 金融科技 (Pinyin: jīnróng kējì)
• Korean: 핀테크 (transliterated as “Pintek”)
• Japanese: フィンテック (transliterated as “Fintekku”)

It is interesting to note the Japanese and Korean terms here, as they touch on an issue previously mentioned – the direct porting of English words into the target language. The written word in Japanese katakana has no native meaning – the transliterated term “Fintekku” is a phonetic recreation designed to approximate the English word as closely as possible. In essence, the word is empty, a mere placeholder, and the increasing number of these linguistic liminal spaces point towards a potential dissonance between culture and language.


Linguistic resonance vs meaning

The situation can be especially complex when incorporating acronyms into different languages. In the healthcare and medical sphere, for example, new viruses are named in a specific way.

Back in the 1980s, the English acronym AIDS was almost uniformly adopted without question by many countries and regions. Notable exceptions being French and Spanish, with “Le syndrome d’immunodéficience acquise” and “síndrome de inmunodeficiencia adquirida” respectively, creating the new acronym SIDA.

Fast forward to late 2019, and the latest major-league health scare to hit the planet, Coronavirus, faced a different translation landscape.

In France, linguists and the wider academic community started to discuss which gender should be applied to Covid-19 – whether it should be “le” or “la” Covid.

The original word “Covid” is an acronym and amalgamation of COronaVIrus Disease, picking out the letters as capitalized. Some argued that the French word for virus – “le virus” is masculine, and therefore “le Covid” is correct. However, the French Academy ruled that the term should be feminine, “la Covid”, because the acronym included the word “Disease”, which in French is “la maladie”, ergo, feminine.

Linguists tend to agree that common practice should apply and prevail in most cases, and argued that, in translation, the common practice was to use the masculine gender even though the official rule was to use the feminine one!

The French Academy responded that, having published an article following the same question which had also arisen from doctors and jurists, they had come to the conclusion that “la Covid” (the feminine) was “better from a language point of view in French”, and had already been adopted by the French version of the WHO website.

Looking behind the moniker “Covid” and examining the etymology of the word “Coronavirus”, we find that its root is the Latin word ‘corona’ which means ‘crown’. The virus is called ‘corona’ because of its crown-like shape and spikes. The original medical name was “novel coronavirus”; in both traditional and simplified Chinese, the term 新冠 is used where 新 = new, and 冠 = crown-like, a disarmingly neat yet literal translation.


The cost of global understanding

Ideally, translating new words in any language requires a deep understanding of both the source and target languages, as well as the cultural and societal contexts in which they are used. The process draws on the creativity and adaptability of translators, as they search for ways to bridge linguistic gaps and facilitate cross-cultural communication. Though the ready adoption of the new word – most often the new English word – into the target without any change promotes global understanding speedily, ultimately, many view it as a lazy solution which prevents other languages, especially minority languages, developing and maintaining their cultural identity on the world stage.