Category Archives: Word formation

Translators are writers

It’s that simple. Writing is an essential part of the translation process. By the way, how many steps does the translation process involve? Academics from the translationsphere have come up with different workflows, but I would like to offer my own in plain English:

  1. Reflexive reading of the original
  2. Writing of the first draft
  3. Polishing the first draft into a final copy (composition)
  4. Spell-checking
  5. Reflexive reading of the translation

Now, these are visible steps. There are many more steps going on inside the mind for each of the above. I’ll focus on writing.

I have been reading Daniel Cassany’s book titled La cocina de la escritura, an excellent treatise on the art and discipline of writing.  In chapter 3, Accionar máquinas, Cassany explores strategies to overcome writer’s block. It occurred to me that we hit a block because we assume that we have to write something finished. A writer doesn’t produce a publish-ready copy; he goes through drafts.

A translation is never finished. Writing is even more complicated all of a sudden. Then again, for the sake of deadlines, a more or less finished draft of the translation is delivered.

To avoid digressing and losing my readers here, let me ask you: What do you think happens when you write? Say, an email, a note to your spouse, a holiday card to a relative. If your first thought is ‘to communicate something’, you got it half right. It’s a half answer because communication is the means to an end. If you want me to deliver a package to a client containing television parts and you send me an email telling me so, the purpose of the email is not to communicate, but to direct me to do something. Not to order, command or mandate. To direct, to guide me, if you will, to do or achieve something. That email has a functional purpose. This applies to other forms of functional texts, such as procedures, handbooks, quick start guides, installation guides, building plans, etc.

Let’s slow down when it comes to writing and translating. When we write, we are not just assembling words together, stitching them up to ‘communicate’. We are not slaves of the words, quite the contrary. We command the words, we can slow them down to think about them. No wonder many translators forget about their role as writers.

What I would like to leave you with is this: writing involves condensing ideas, sometimes, very complex ideas, into words that should make sense to the reader. Translation is not that different.




Filed under Spanish technical writing, Translation, Translation as writing, Word formation

Obamneycare, Romneycare, Obamacare and other monsters

Weeks ago, Republican presidential contender Tim Pawlenty tried to make fun of Mitt Romney’s health care plan in Massachusetts by calling it Obamneycare because it resembles the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), popularly known as Obamacare by opponents of the wide-reaching law.

We can offer a smile at these political creations while shaking our heads. A politician’s resumé should certainly include the gift of gab, proven skills at public speaking and the ability to persuade with words, but political creatures hardly benefit from their attempts at creating words. That task is best left to writers with a knack for neologisms and a flair for injecting powerful meaning into a small word package.

What surprises me is that these so-called creations have so many syllables in a language where monosyllabic or disyllabic words pack the biggest punch. Besides, the word care is phonologically a weak one, in my opinion. Even though c is a plosive consonant, its power is soon diluted by the -are sound which, perhaps following its airy inspiration, disappears from the tongue in a puff.

Creating new words or neologisms is a highly skilled task that shows, when successfully practiced, a great deal of intelligence and a vast knowledge of language. It is not enough to have a head full of words, we need to know how these words relate to each other. Words are not just clusters of letters, they are living entities. As such, they are born, they grow, reproduce and –in most cases– die.

I recently came across a combo found in a tweet on LinkedIn: media omnivore. The meat of the message was that Latinas are media omnivores in the sense that they consume any kind of media. By media, we will assume online content such as webpages, tweets, microblogs, blogs and the like. That’s another word –media– that needs some serious rehashing and specificity because the message is being lost in it.

I commented on my friend’s quoting of this tweet by clarifying that the phrase media omnivore is an oxymoron, since omnivore points to a human being or an animal that eats everything. Dogs and pigs are omnivores, cows and squirrels are not. In any case, I pointed out, it should be mediavore.

By the way, you can find a rich sample of some media for mediavores at The Mediavore – Consuming The Best Public Media.


Filed under Neologism, Terminology, Word formation

Conspiracy theories

Two nights ago, I took part in a debate about whether the death of Osama bin Laden had been a CIA fabrication. The other two people in the discussion live in Argentina. They both favor certain conspiracy theories that have long been debunked, such as the 9/11 attack was orchestrated by the U.S. government or that Osama bin Laden had been dead for some time now.

Fringe myths have been with humankind since humans began to talk to each other. There is good and bad gossip, and there are entertaining and dangerous myths. Language is not without its tall tales and misconceptions born out of misinformation, prejudice, ignorance or fear.

In Spanish in particular, I found the following ‘theories’:

a) Spanish-speaking people in all 22 countries where Spanish is used speak the same Spanish.
b) Spanish-speaking immigrants in the United States are fully bilingual.
c) Spanish translators are bilingual typists.
d) Spanish interpreters can also translate.
e) Castillian Spanish is too different from Latin American Spanish.
f) The Real Academia Española is out of touch with the way Spanish is currently used.
g) Educated Spanish speakers everywhere love headings with all the words capitalized.
h) Spanish immigrants from Mexico are all uneducated.

I am certain there are more out there. If you have any stories or ‘theories’, please share them here.

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Filed under Etymology, Spanish language, Word formation

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

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