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Words to Look Out for in Translation Services

04 May 2008 Sunday

Many of us who are familiar with two or more languages have noticed how words from one language may sound a lot like words from another.  In some cases, the exact same word is used in both languages, and it is obvious that it has been borrowed from one into the other.  Here are a few things that translators should be wary of when providing translation services:

Cognates are everywhere, especially when a root language branches out into several different languages.  Latin words are often the roots for words in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian.  For example, the Latin word “activus” gives us “active” in English, “actif” in French, “activo” in Spanish and “attivo” in Italian.  These words all sound really similar, but there are subtle differences in spelling which a translator must take into account to get an accurate translation.

Calques are really interesting because they are formed when a word is literally translated from one language into another.  For example, the English word “skyscraper” becomes “gratte-ciel” in French, where “gratter” means “to scrape” and “ciel” means sky.  You see the same method of word-formation in other languages as well.  In German, the word for skyscraper is “Wolkenkratzer” or “cloud-scraper.”  In Portuguese, it is “arranha-céu” or “scrapes-sky.”  In Spanish, it’s “rascacielos” or “scrapes-skies.”  Calques can be deceiving because they sound like the words from which they have been derived, so there is a temptation to literally translate other words too, but this would not be correct.

Some amusing calques include the French “carte mère,” a literal translation of the English word “motherboard.”  In The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien names Bilbo Baggins’ residence “Bag End,” a literal translation of the French “cul-de-sac.”

“Loanword” is probably the wrong word to use for loanwords because they may be borrowed from another language but they are never returned!  Some common ones include “le bodybuilding” in French, obviously taken from the English and “déja vu” in English, taken from the French.  A translator should use loanwords where appropriate but resist the temptation to create new ones because s/he can’t come up with the right word.
Sometime, loanwords make their way from one language to another and back into the first, a process called reborrowing.  For example, the English word “beef” comes from the French “beouf” but has made its way back to French as “bifteck” (beefsteak).

False Friends
All translators must be wary of false friends, words that make their way from one language to another but, over time, come to mean something different.  For example, the German word “hund” means “dog” in English but the English word “hound” which sounds a lot like “hund” means “a dog used for hunting.”  In this case, the difference is not much but in certain other cases, it can be serious.  For example, the word “preservativ” in Russia doesn’t refer to “preserves” or “preservatives” but to “contraceptives!”  In such cases, a translator has to be very careful not to use the wrong word.

Translation is a delicate art and there are many things a good translator must be aware of, including cognates, loanwords, calques and false friends.  Contact us for translations that use the right word at the right time.