Common Words in Technical Language: hot

ATA Chronicle, November 2001

By Roberto Crivello (Translated by Jonathan Hine)

(This article originally appeared in Italian in the January 2001 issue of Tradurre, the newsletter of ATA’s Italian Language Division, with the title “Parole comuni nel linguaggio tecnico: hot.”)

Not long ago, this short appeal for help appeared in a translator’s listserve: “… I have trouble with three terms. The context: The hot-shift PTO turns OFF when the System ON/OFF selector is OFF (WT transmissions). Units with a front or rear live-drive PTO or an auxiliary engine have a ‘shut off’ solenoid on the Binlifter pump to prevent oil flow when the System ON/OFF selector is OFF.”

I would like to focus on the term hot-shift PTO. It would not be possible or useful to give it an exact and unequivocal translation, given the insufficient information in the e-mail. Instead, I would like to use this term to step, if only partially, through a mental process for resolving problems in technical translation.

There is at least enough context to know that the subject is a power take-off (PTO). These devices, mounted on the tractor’s driveline, transmit power from the engine to outside loads (attachments or other machines). The PTO does this through removable drive shafts with grooved couplings. The immediate translation of shift in the mechanical field might be innesto o cambio di marcia, but how does one translate the common word hot? One could use the first translation, caldo, as a starting point.

In English, semantic redefinitions of common words (in this case hot) occur often. However, one can never be sure if an analogous redefinition in Italian would be acceptable, since that language offers very different solutions, even in the same scientific field.

For example, take a field familiar to many technical translators: information technology. In some cases, the foreign words are carried whole into Italian (mouse, drive, handle, scanner, etc), while in others an English term is Italianized (typically with a suffix, as in masterizzatore for CD writer). This last example leaps past the obvious scrittore per CD, whose analog, lettore per CD, is correct for CD reader. In other cases, the Italian language shows remarkable creativity, as when it describes the HTML writer who prepares Web documents as an accatiemmelista.1

Now, let us return to hot and the first equivalent that comes to mind, caldo. In general, hot is used to define a high-temperature process, for example, hot-stamping, hot-rolling (stampaggio, laminazione a caldo). There are other meanings that may not lead immediately to the idea of high temperature, but that, nonetheless, are understandably used to mean “working.” For example, the electrical term hot outlet is a presa sotto tensione. An acceptable use of caldo as a calque occurs in the expression hot swappable (sostituibile a caldo), which in electronics means to replace a component without turning off the system (e.g., the battery in a UPS, or uninterruptible power supply, the gruppo di continuità).

Could we use an analogy from that and write innestabile a caldo for our hot-shift PTO? A search of English-language Websites belonging to manufacturers of industrial machines and devices reveals that hot-shift PTO can have several meanings relating to innesto, depending on the manufacturer or the purchasers (looking at the category headings). Some of these meanings can be quite close. Among the analogous Italian-language sites, however, one finds only cases in which caldo is used to mean high temperature, as described above. When a motor vehicle is operating, one speaks of caldo only when referring to the engine coolant, and not transmission components such as the gears, clutches, drives, and so forth (the exception being when these components malfunction).

The solution seems to lie in another meaning of hot, namely diretto. We find this in modern terms like hot links (also from information technology). Hot links is often transferred from the English today, but may still be translated as collegamenti diretti based on its meaning. It also harks back to the days before computers, as is hot line (linea diretta). The common adjective diretto, meaning “without intermediate steps,” becomes part of the precise technical meaning of presa diretta: “condizione del cambio di velocità in cui il moto passa direttamente dall’albero d’entrata a quello delle ruote. 2

This is where we can finally hook up with our starting point; namely, with the take-off of power and the way it can be connected and disconnected from the power of the engine. Most often a power take-off will use a clutch with a manual gear shifter, but other, more sophisticated, designs are possible that allow for a smoother, or even an automatic, engagement. At this point, we still need to read the whole document carefully to be sure of an acceptable translation. In fact, there are other possibilities for hot-shift, each depending on context: a innesto diretto, as well as che non richiede frizione, a innesto progressivo, a inserimento automatico, to name a few.

This is a good point at which to reflect on one of the skills required of the technical translator: finding balance between exasperating specialization and draining one’s intellectual energy across several subjects. A translator who chooses to specialize in medicine without some basic understanding of electronics and mechanics risks inadvertently missing those aspects when translating medical equipment manuals (for example, the detection systems for electrical signals or the operating mechanisms of tomography equipment).

Translators who work mainly in information technology and know the glossaries and screens of operating systems in depth, may not know how a modem or a router works, but they should recognize “training” as not being addestramento (to make proficient by instruction and practice). Their experience would warn them that English uses common words in a technical context, something Italian does not do so often. An accurate amount of research should lead them to trasmissione della sequenza di sincronizzazione (the connection process that occurs during the initial handshake).

Since knowing everything is impossible, the technical translator must at least learn the basics in those fields that might likely intersect with the one in which he or she is specializing. This way, the translator can gradually develop the mental connections needed among meanings, expressions, and terms to evaluate the suitability of any analogies uncovered.


1. To my surprise, this neologism does not appear in many modern Italian dictionaries, including Grande dizionario italiano dell’uso (by Tullio de Mauro), Zingarelli 2000, Dizionario Italiano Sabatini Coletti, and Devoto-Oli 2000, though the word has been around since at least 1995.


2. Devoto-Oli 2000. Il dizionario della lingua italiana. Florence: Le Monnier., p. 1602 (condition of the transmission in which the motion passes directly from the input drive shaft to the output drive shaft for the wheels.)