Category Archives: Lexicography

Terminología española or how to make better dictionaries for US Spanish speakers

If you are traveling to Spain or Mexico, but do not know the language, chances are that you will pick up a pocket English-Spanish dictionary at Half Price Books, Barnes & Noble or at your local library. Publishers like Collins, Merriam-Webster and Random House are well known. There are also bilingual phrasebooks. Pocket dictionaries are intended for casual users, naturally.

Students who are taking a language course will need a more robust solution, where the dictionary shows parts of speech and usage examples in practical situations. Again, major publishers have that need covered. Then you have more specialized dictionaries containing definitions and highly detailed notes on usage. Even large bilingual English-Spanish dictionaries, however, are general-purpose publications. In the United States, the focus is on bilingual glossaries or dictionaries, not monolingual ones. In the case of English, the United States markets are saturated with a vast array of proper English dictionaries. If you are a student of a foreign language, French, Spanish or German, you need a proper monolingual dictionary in that language. Most such dictionaries are imported, however. In essence, language students and tourists have their needs covered by the existing dictionaries. What about the local Spanish-speaking residents?

In the case of Spanish, it’s not a foreign language anymore, since more than 37 million speak it in America. And many more will speak it in the years to come. Why is it, then, that it is a language only visible to us when we hear it spoken or seen on cable TV telenovelas (soap operas)? Readers can avail themselves of the many Spanish newspapers, such as the El Diario La Prensa (New York) and El Nuevo Herald (Miami, FL), as well as weeklies and magazines. Books are also being published in Spanish in the United States, according to the Publishers Global website.

County-level map of Spanish language use in the United States in 2012

County-level map of Spanish language use in the United States in 2012

The Spanish language is being taught in schools, community colleges and universities. Bilingual workers and professionals —those using Spanish and English— are found across many industries. So, why am I still concerned for the lack of monolingual Spanish dictionaries being published natively in the United States? Although there are efforts to catalog, promote and/or describe specific Spanish uses, such as Ilán Stavans’ Spanglish and RIUSS‘ work on estadounidismos (Spanish words or expressions that take on new meaning in the United States), there are no lexicography projects involving Spanish in the United States that I know of.

At this point, I want to make a clarification: the numerous university translation certificate courses being taught have a terminology component, which is basically a list of domain-specific words, such as financial or medical terminology, along with the basics on how to build bilingual or multilingual glossaries. But this area of terminology is not lexicography, which is the craft and discipline of dictionary making.

Dr. Francisco Marcos-Marín, a professor of linguistics and advisor to RIUSS, has written a brief report on Spanish lexicography. Spanish lexicography is also the focus of a master’s program sponsored jointly by Universidad de León (Spain) and the Real Academia Española. Sadly, candidates to this unique graduate program on Spanish lexicography cannot be citizens of the United States, Equatorial Guinea, Philippines or Spain. Yet it is precisely here, in America, where Spanish lexicography is most needed at this time.

fundacion-carolina-master-lexicografia-hispanica

The two examples cited, Spanglish and the RIUSS projects, are isolated projects that pursue very different approaches. On one hand, Spanglish reflects a lingua franca for some Spanish speakers (there are examples of an incipient Spanglish literature), but Spanglish is not Spanish and it is not useful for communicating with other Spanish-speaking populations or nations. On the other hand, RIUSS has for objectives the study and promotion of formal Spanish usage and plain Spanish language in health care and similar public services. These projects might use word lists and glossaries to achieve their purposes, but their objective is not lexicography per se.

Why would Spanish lexicography be necessary or desirable in America? I can envision a few reasons:

  1. Promotion of Spanish as another language (not a foreign language) in use in the United States beyond translation and imported literature
  2. Creation and publication of US Spanish dictionaries
  3. Complementary and solid research beyond the politics of statistics
  4. Stronger and more effective visibility of United States Spanish usage in written and spoken form

Spanish speakers and other users of this language already have dictionaries published by the Real Academia Española, but this is not enough to foster and cement their linguistic ans sociocultural identity. Think tanks like the Pew Research Center, political parties and cultural observers may talk about Spanish and Spanish speakers in the United States but this is not enough. I hope to start a conversation.

 

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Filed under Lexicography, Spanglish, Spanish language, US Spanish

Consistency, that undefinable umbrella term

If you are a translation buyer, you are probably concerned that a translation should be consistent across the different documents it involves: marketing brochures, PowerPoint slides, technical descriptions, even sales items and press releases. It makes sense to keep a unified message out there.

If you are a translator like me, you’ve heard it too: keep the terms consistent; maintain consistency across all files.

I think translation buyers, translators and project managers are meaning different things when they request consistency and I’ll attempt to clarify it here.

First, let’s get the obvious meaning out of the way: when people talk about consistent things, they mean use the same terms: a bolt is a bolt, not a carriage bolt. A partition is not necessarily a wall anymore than a white blood cell is a blood element. The more technical a document, the more consistent it should be, because using ambiguous terms might mean using the wrong kind of steel or injecting the wrong dosage of a certain drug.

But I think consistency refers to a more important fact: comprehension. And for a statement to be easily understood, the same exact words do not always need to be used. An example:

A) Provide stainless steel self-tapping metal fasteners to attach the metal panel system to the bathroom partition.

B) Affix the metal panel to the bathroom partition using stainless steel self-tapping screws.

Both sentences above, A and B, are giving exactly the same instructions. Notice, however, that B is shorter, crisper and clearer. Imagine that the user’s manual has sentence A while a maintenance manual has sentence B: the sentences differ, but they are consistent in meaning and purpose. And that’s worth remembering.

A translator doesn't just substitute words like code characters.

A translator doesn’t just substitute words like code characters.

The other side of the consistency coin is terminology. Many people, including translators, use the word a bit carelessly without fully understanding what it means. In civil engineering, an overhead panel ceiling is the same as a panel ceiling system, or a panel ceiling. Some people like to show off a bit and call a heater a heating unit or a heating system, but they are all one and the same in the real world.

Translators should concern themselves more with doing proper word and concept research to support their translation choices rather than promise a fuzzy idea of consistency. They should know better about using glossaries, dictionaries and other sources rather than floating the word terminology so casually. Why? Because terminology is more than just building a glossary of specialized words; proper terminology also involves developing the right criteria to use those words. Terminology is not about foreign word substitution because languages are not software codes, not easily amenable to a simple search and replace action or a copy and paste method. And a seasoned translator who changes a word doesn’t necessarily do it out of preference but out of precision and, ironically enough, to preserve the much-valued consistency.

Then, what to do with consistency? Call it something else, for starters. As a project manager, I learned that the best time to ask questions about expectations is in the beginning, before mistaken assumptions cause costly mistakes and delays. The first expectations to be clarified are those of the translation buyer, i.e. the client. What are her priorities? Once priorities are stated and fleshed out, begin from there:

Is there a company glossary to use as reference? A responsible and expert translator does not promise blind conformity with a glossary without taking a good look at it first. Also, it’s also a translator’s best practice to tell the customer that the most updated, industry-specific and appropriate terms shall be used, and that those terms may or may not come from the company glossary. If this potentially sticky point is handled at the beginning, then expectations shall be clearer for all concerned and any questions of consistency will be resolved.

If the translator earns the customer’s trust about his performance in writing excellent technical translations, then nitpicking about this or that word usage will be very rare. When this trust is not established from the beginning among the translator, his customer, the customer’s reviewers and even the project manager and fellow translators working on the same project, then the entire team will spend time arguing over terminological issues, preferences and so-called consistency. Chances are that, in this chaotic environment, an otherwise well-written translation will be questioned for the terms it uses.

As an aside note on consistency, I think universities and colleges engaged in teaching translation and interpretation should teach lexicography basics rather than terminology. If we want to prepare a new generation of competent translators, we need to show them the basics of dictionary making, the process of word formation and the principles of empirical research aimed at finding the right terms and expressions in a given industry or specialization. Otherwise, we are selling them just an empty shell of knowledge —after all, terminology is widely (and mistakenly) understood as the process of building glossaries for a given industry. But, as I hoped to show above, that’s only part of the story.

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Filed under Consistency, Lexicography, Research in translation, Terminology, Vocabulary, Writing skills

Roget’s Thesaurus would be envious

Thesauri bring back college memories for me. The first Roget’s I consulted was a tattered paperback in the School of Languages library in Córdoba (Argentina), back in the mid ’80s. Fast forward to 2005: not Microsoft Word thesaurus, not an unabridged book, but a visual thesaurus, produced by noted American linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer.

This electronic thesaurus is based on a mindmap, with a 3D look and feel (see below). Versions for Spanish, French, German and Portuguese are offered in the form of online subscriptions. Version 3 is available for the Windows and Mac platforms.

Interface of Visual Thesaurus 3.0

Visual Thesaurus is an exquisite and elegant solution to flipping through dozens of pages and combing indexes in a regular thesaurus to find not just a word but word relationships. The lexicographer in me appreciates the well-thought organization of this tool and the visual creature in me enjoys how families of words are portrayed in star and branch arrays, making quick work of word analysis.

But, you’d say, you write in Spanish, not English, when you translate, correct? Yes, I admit that my English writing benefits the most from this tool. However, my Spanish translations and writings are better informed and polished when I use this visual template for my own native language analysis.

For more information, go to http://www.visualthesaurus.com/.

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Filed under Etymology, Lexicography, Terminology, Thesaurus, Visual Thesaurus, Vocabulary, Word formation

How to translate ‘cloud computing’ in Spanish?

The concept of cloud computing has been around for a while now. In Spanish, the cloud is simply “la nube”. With that noun in mind, phrases like cloud computing and cloud storage have been translated as computación en la nube/informática en la nube and almacenamiento en la nube, respectively. I find this construction quite laughable, actually, since it reminds me of the phrase en la nube as in Él andaba por las nubes durante la ceremonia (He was daydreaming during the ceremony).

Here’s my problem with it. Spanish already has nimbo, from the Latin nimbus, which means nube. Its morphology would allow it to be used as a prefix. My solution? Nimbocomputación or nimboinformática.

I think many translators are afraid to coin neologisms and, instead, refer to Google for word choices. This is equivalent to a software programmer asking a Best Buy employee for advice on how to build a mobile app.

Of course, the future of any neologism lies in widespread acceptance and usage. I recognize that usage has an inherent strong democratic power, regardless of reason, logic or level of education. Right now, the Wild West that is the Internet is informing specialized content with consequences both good and bad.

Although this is a quixotic effort on my part, I’ll keep using nimbocomputación…at least, in private.

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Filed under Etymology, Lexicography, Syntax, Terminology, Vocabulary, Word formation