Category Archives: Vocabulary

Translation is a function of writing

“What is it that you do, Mario,” asked my coworker, a software trainer with experience in rigging (as in venue rigging for shows, concerts, etc.).

I felt relaxed as I answered him: “My fancy title, localization specialist, means that I’m the company’s Spanish translator for software and documentation.”

We then briefly discussed our last exchange over some rigging terms like drops. In rigging, a drop can be a drop point or the point from where a load is dropped or suspended, or the load itself that is being suspended from a truss or similar structure. The reader may squint at this and say “Aha! You are talking about terminology in translation, not writing.” And the reader may be half right.

Due to the pressure of internet speed we think we have to operate daily, many of us translators and associated professionals assume that the key to a usable and appropriate translation is the use of industry-specific terminology. Let’s try a simple experiment to see if that’s true. The following was extracted from the Spanish Wikipedia article on radio a transistores:

Texas Instruments había demostrado varias radios completamente transistorizadas AM (amplitud modulada) el 25 de mayo de 1954​ pero su performance era muy inferior al de los modelos equivalentes a válvulas.

At a glance, correct terminology is being used in this paragraph but the observant reader will notice several solecisms, aside from the unnecessary anglicism performance. Texas Instrument “demoed” or demonstrated the operation of transistor radios, but the use of demostrar in the above paragraph means it exhibited or showed radios, now how they performed. The second glaring solecism appears at the end, “modelos equivalentes a válvulas,” to mean similar valve-based (radio) models.

A writer of any type of text needs to work from two distinct but related perspectives: the macrostructure and the microstructure. Put it another way, the author writing a handbook or a novel has to keep the larger picture of a chapter in mind while treading on the sentences, paragraphs or dialog bits on a page. A good writer, or translator, keeps the unity of texts, while the mediocre writer or translator segmentizes texts, forgets connectors, commits solecisms and other inexcusable writing failures. Strictly speaking of translation, a translator who is too dependent on the segmentized texts presented to her by CAT and TEnT tools is already failing in the writing task at hand, unless she works with the entire macrostructure: a previewed page or section of text, for instance.

Why this imbalance occurs should be of interest to all of us. In layman’s terms, the text macrostructure is the domain of text grammar and the text microstructure that of sentence grammar. Most of us were taught language and literature via sentence grammar. I contend that this is the main reason we overfocus on terms or single words rather than on the entire text structure spanning sections, pages and chapters.

Translation is a function of writing, and writing is a function of an educated mind.

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Filed under Grammar, Sentence grammar, Terminology, Text grammar, Translation as writing, Vocabulary, Writing skills

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

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

Give feedback to your vendors

I just received an email from a very powerful organization. We were in interviews towards an in-house position in this organization. As part of the interviewing process, I was sent proofreading and writing tests to assess my skills. To their credit, the tests were well designed. Some of the paragraphs contained errors on purpose to make detection difficult unless you spent time reading it twice or even 3 times. An excellent exercise.

But this organization failed miserably when it came to providing feedback. In their formal email, they indicated that I did not qualify for the position because a great deal of linguistic and grammar acumen are required for it. No details, no examples, just a blanket statement, which I found troubling and telling.

In the everyday discussions about QA that many translation bureaus and translation vendors have, feedback is key to secure good assets and nurture good relationships for the long haul.

On another occasion, many years ago, I applied for a position at a well-known multinational from Europe. The translation test was economics. After I sent in my test, I received a terse explanation that it hadn’t passed because I did not know some of the industry terms. Not a word about writing style, grammar or accuracy.

If you provide feedback to your translation vendor or to a candidate, be specific. Better yet, agree beforehand on what constitutes a major or unacceptable error and how many errors are allowed. Do not assume. Spanish is spoken and written in more than 20 countries, and some syntax and phrase variations are going to take place. Style is also an important component in assessing the quality of translation, but it is difficult to gauge because the customer’s reviewer may add too much subjectivity into it. Also, be open to discuss what standards your organization adheres to, whether corporate style is paramount, etc. Again, be specific because it is a way of showing respect to a professional linguist.

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Filed under Customer relationship, Grammar, Negotiations, Style, Syntax, Translation errors, Vocabulary

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.


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

Vengeance or revenge?

Most dictionaries seem to define ‘revenge’ and ‘vengeance’ as synonyms, but I am not sure. ‘Revenge’ implies retaliation or the causing of injury to the offender, whereas ‘vengeance’ takes it one step further: harming the offender in retaliation for something harmful they’ve done. In Spanish, we have ‘venganza’ (noun) and ‘vengarse’ (intransitive verb).

This comparative thought was brought on by a reading of an article in this week’s The Economist, titled “Rough Justice.” One paragraph reflects on the sense of vengeance in its virulent form –apparently:

“The most dangerous criminals must be locked up, but states could try harder to reintegrate the softer cases into society, by encouraging them to study or work and by ending the pointlessly vindictive gesture of not letting them vote.”

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Filed under Etymology, Glossary, Terminology, Vocabulary