The Translation of English Neologisms

June 22, 2015 10:20 am

“Translation is that which transforms everything so that nothing changes”.
Günter Grass

The translation of neologisms tops the list of the most difficult matters which translators face. Neologisms are widely known as new words or new meanings of words already existing in the vocabulary which have not yet entered into the common use. Obviously, English dictionaries cannot register immediately all new words, figurative phrases and nonce words which annually enrich our vocabulary by tens of thousands of new words. As a result, translators need to rely on the context and try to transfer the meanings of neologisms into the target language instead of looking them up in the other, often less reliable sources, including online dictionaries. It means that they have to “invent” new words following some word-building patterns or explain English neologisms using the descriptive method.
The origins of neologisms are often roughly divided into two groups: linguistic and extra-linguistic which are, however, inseparable. Various types of word-building and borrowings refer to the first group, and the extra-linguistic sources can be of political (glasnost), economical (forex = foreign + exchange), social (hipster), scientific (dilitancy), and technological (FOMO, “Fear of missing out” ¬– related to social networks) origin. Nevertheless, it does not mean that neologisms coming from extra-linguistic sources cannot be a result of word-building which shows the interconnection between these two factors.
Generally speaking, there are four methods for translating neologisms: selection of an equivalent in a target language, transliteration and transcription, loan translation, or calque. The first method is the easiest one. If the word is fixed in the dictionaries, there is usually no problem with finding equivalents. Nevertheless, it is not always possible to find an appropriate analogue in the target language, which can be explained by different cultural levels or even political situation in the corresponding countries. Without any background information about the meanings of new words, translators risk to misuse the words in the target language. It is especially important to check them while using the descriptive (explanatory) method of translation. This method is seen as the most productive in English-Russian translation due to absolutely different means of expression in both languages. Sometimes a whole sentence is needed in Russian to express the meaning of just a couple of words in English.
The so-called “language conciseness” typical for English makes the translators to use two other methods: transliteration and transcription. Transcription helps to maintain the sound form of the source word with the help of another script, while transliteration implies transformation of letters into another alphabet. In practice, both methods are often combined. It is worth mentioning that many English letters and sounds do not have exact analogues in Russian and, thus, some words can have two or more transliterated variants in the target language.
Loan translation does not change the original word at all. This method concerns the borrowings from different languages which preferably need to be preserved due to the absence of the original concepts and notions which are borrowed as well.
So the most important rule that we should respect while translating neologisms is transferring the meanings of words from the source language into the target one and, according to Günter Grass, trying to translate them in a way that will not change anything. It is often quite easy to do it because of loan words and such methods as transliteration and transcription. Nevertheless, descriptive translation is a more difficult method and involves close work with explanatory dictionaries.


The international dictionary of neologisms
Written by: Asmik Avagyan. Translator and student of the “Master in Learning and Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts” of the University of Luxembourg.

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