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Translating Invented Terms

25th June, 2015 I by Elizabeth Conant

In some cases, translators will come across a word straight from the mind of a text’s author. When there’s no possible way for invented words to have an equivalent in the target language, translators must come up with their most creative solutions.

Technical Language

When an engineer or scientist invents a new process or makes a new discovery, they will coin a new term for it in their native language. In some cases, scientific discovery is shared in primarily one language, creating a dominant language of scientific discourse. Latin, Arabic, French and now English have all held this position throughout history, and possessed an entire lexicon of technical concepts that are untranslatable in other languages. In these cases, the translator must explain the concept and create a new equivalent term in the target language. In most cases, translators prefer simply to transliterate the original phrase, adapting it slightly to make pronunciation in the target language easier. When transliteration is impossible the translator must create an original word, and different translators may provide competing terms until one word become culturally acknowledged.

Literary Invention

Even more challenge may be in the realm of literature translation. Translation cases such as Tolkien and Rowling’s works include a lexicon of invented words that all need to carry specific translations. Rowling’s spells alone follow English patterns: charms such as “expecto patronum,” “alohamora,” and “lumos” have Latin roots to reflect their more complex, elite nature. In contrast, common household spells such as “scourigify,” draw on the Germanic roots that English speakers associate with the home and hearth. In this case, translators must try to draw on equivalent connotations in their target language to create similar associations. In the Hindi translation, Sanskrit roots are used instead of Latin to preserve the connotations of history, power, and formality.

Linguistically Rooted Gibberish

One of the most historically challenging pieces to translate is Lewis Carrol’s poem, “Jabberwocky,” which is written entirely in gibberish and which resembles an English poem enough in form and grammar to be vaguely intelligible to most readers. The first lines, “Twas brilig, and the slithy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe” clearly set the stage for something and even suggests a natural environment—despite being technically unintelligible. Translators who tackle this piece of literature must try to evoke the same associations and flow of words in an equivalent gibberish in another language. Most do so by creating gibberish words that better match the syntax of the target language. Ultimately, the process is highly individual and creative. It only takes a short glance at a collection of various Jabberwocky translations to see the wide range of solutions that translators have sought to capture the whimsical, adventuresome sense of the original poem. Other examples of translating intelligible gibberish include chapter 68 of Rayluela by Julio Cortázar, written entirely in a nonsense language resembling Spanish called “glíglic.”

Have you come across an invented word that you couldn’t find an equivalent for in the target language? What did you do? Please write your comment below.

One response to “Translating Invented Terms”

  1. Eve Olson says:

    I have read Harry Potter in Spanish, and that was totally doable! But when I tried to read it in Arabic, the nonexistent terminology killed me!

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