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What’s so disruptive about “disruptive”?

According to Google’s Ngram graph generator, the phrase “disruptive technology” appeared in print in the mid 1990s. Another phenomenon appeared at the same time: the dot.com bubble.

Douglas Rushkoff, author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity, recently wrote an article titled “Startups are not as disruptive as they appear,” adding:

“…the rapid growth of companies like AOL and Amazon —no matter the strength of their underlying businesses— whetted Wall Street’s appetite for exponential growth. And young founders took the bait, prioritizing inflated valuations over sustainable business models. The ideal shifted from building a company to getting it acquired.” (TIME magazine, March 21, 2016)

My readers might surmise that I’m about to indicate the correct Spanish translation for “disruptive”.  Alas, Fundéu has already done it:

disruptive-disruptivo-fundeu

I disagree, since we can use innovador, radical, revolucionario among other terms. As useful as Fundéu is for us translators and language users, I don’t just grab the first option. First, let’s see how the word is used in contemporary English. The American Heritage Dictionary (online version) defines disruptive thus:

disruptive-definition-ahd

In this short analysis of the adjective disruptive, specific lexicogrammatical coordinates are required. It is not enough to define a word but to see what other words can be used in its stead. Here’s a list of conventional synonyms from Thesaurus.com:

disruptive-synonyms-thesaurus-com

We find more up-to-date information in the online MacMillan dictionary. The new usage for disruptive appears as “showing approval; original and new in a way that causes change.” But, doesn’t the English language have words for that already? Examples: innovative, radical, revolutionary.
macmillan-dictionary-disruptiveIt is clear that we can arrive at more intelligible options that are not buzzwords. Buzzwords can be part of an argot (casual vocabulary) or jargon (professional vocabulary). They aren’t just communicating a message (“this new memory chip is revolutionary!”) but also a philosophy. Let’s remember, however, that a company’s or manufacturer’s philosophy (so enshrined in their Mission and Vision statements) mask the reasons why the consumer should buy their products.

One of the features of a translation is communication, but it is hardly its only function. A translation can convey beauty (a poem), lifesaving information (hazardous material datasheet), instructions to achieve a task (repair of a water heater) and much more. To say that translators are communicators is as reductive and pedestrian as saying that a piano keyboard makes sounds.

A translator consulting Google for frequency of use of a certain neologism as his primary method of determining the right word in a translation is not doing his job. You, the end user, the project manager, the customer, the company owner, advertising manager or marketing copywriter, deserve better. After all, you also have access to a web browser and connection to the Internet. You could have arrived at the same conclusion by doing a search yourself. So, why are you paying that translator after all?

Being bilingually skilled to work with words is not enough. Pre-Internet, a rush search for an equivalent in a foreign language would involve consulting a dictionary. But a dictionary definition can only do so much. Reading actual usage of that word in the real world, in the here and now, requires a more empirical research method, and that necessitates reading relevant texts. For a translator, searching for the equivalent of our mot du jour, “disruptive,” should include not only reading the relevant English texts but also the French, Spanish or Chinese texts that are also relevant and specific.

A word about relevant texts: the translator will need to select the texts that show word usage with the least load of intentionality. Put it another way, a relevant text for our research purposes is any text that is not trying to sell you something (an idea or a product). With practice, a translator will learn to identify relevant texts and discard irrelevant ones. Now, back to being “disruptive.” As you may have surmised, the exposition of definitions, synonyms and arguments above is part of my own research of this word to better understand not just what meaning it carries but also how it (the word) interacts with other parts of speech, with other texts and with other meanings.

The previous paragraph may sound like a headache to the average person, but all those processes happen inside the head of a properly trained professional translator or terminologist. We are just seeing the product of those processes in this entry to illustrate how the complex may seem simple and quick, but only on the surface.

Any translator worth his salt will tell you that a proper translation will carry the original meanings over to the receiving language: your slogan will sound as peppy and impactful in French as it does in English; your technical descriptions will appear as clear and purposeful in the foreign language just like your technical writer or engineer made them in the original language. Your English advertisement will be as persuasive in Chinese. But let’s be careful: a translator is just the intermediary, the bridge between you and your end user. There is no need for the translator to adopt marketingspeak or advertising lingo. Yet that’s exactly what some translators, judging by what they write on blogs or industry publications, seem to have done with “disruptive.” They have become besotted with the promises behind that adjective, and that becomes a problem. Instead of being translators, they act like product evangelists (buzzword use totally intended). Like a faithful interpreter, a translator should act agnostic to the meaning or message he is carrying over for you to another language and culture.

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Filed under Buzzword, Diccionario Real Academia Española (DRAE), Fundéu BBVA, Neologism, Online dictionaries, Qualified translators, Research for translators, Research methods, Thesaurus, Word search