Why there are so many English words in your translation

After you have ordered a translation, you might be surprised to find out that in your translated material many words have not been translated. Why’s that?

Many factors come into play, including the spread of the English language worldwide, the speed at which neologisms are created in the US in many fields, both technical and non-technical, and the brevity of many English phrases as well as frequent usage of metaphors. Thus, many English words are not being translated because suitable alternatives are not easily and quickly found.

For example, a couple of years ago the Wall Street Journal published this article on the problems faced by a group of French experts trying to find a suitable translation for cloud computing. Among other examples, the article also mentioned that most French people say le week-end and un surfer, even though the correct translations of the terms – according to the General Delegation for the French Language – are fin de semaine (end of the week) and aquaplanchiste (water boarder).

The same happens with the Spanish language: The Royal Spanish Academy, which aims to monitor proper use of the Spanish language, proposes translations for many worldwide English words. However, the foreign words also continue to be used, as in correo electrónico (electronic mail) versus e-mail.

Italy is most likely one of the countries where the usage of English terms is more widespread, because it doesn’t have an institution that acts as watchdog for the “purity” of the Italian language. However, for every Anglicism there might be an alternative that is more or less widely used.

For example, the word [computer] file is almost never being translated, so you shouldn’t be surprised to see file in your translation. But homepage could either remain untranslated or be replaced by pagina d’entrata or pagina iniziale (entrance page or starting page). A good translator will choose the most appropriate choice, based on the context. (A useful guideline: which one do your Italian representatives use on their website?)

File and home page are simple enough examples. But what about words like accountability or stewardship, which are not easily translated? Leaving them untranslated seem the most natural choice to many translators. However, there are several possible solutions for both accountability and stewardship.

In his interesting and useful Dizionarietto di parole del futuro (Little dictionary of words of the future), which reviews many Anglicisms, the famous Italian linguist Tullio de Mauro has an entry about accountability. He explains how the word, which appeared in Italy in 1984, has spread into many languages, chiefly French and Spanish. But he adds that there are many possible translations. There are four proposals in a dictionary of neologisms by Adamo and Della Valle: responsabilità, attendibilità, controllo, responsabilizzazione. Another proposal is rendicontabilità. Yet another one, by Sansoni Dictionary, is trasparenza. The best possible choice will depend on the context.

Similarly, as I explained in a brief article (in Italian only) on stewardship, this word is not at all untranslatable. Depending on the context, there are several possible solutions.

Back to the initial “problem” of the many English words left untranslated. Often, “difficult” English words are not being translated because their exact meaning is not clear in the current context. Thus, not translating them is the easiest way out. However, in order to allow for a more thorough understanding of the text by the widest audience possible, these words would need to be translated. If you have carefully selected your translation vendor, you should be able to trust their expertise, and be confident that they have made an appropriate terminology selection. However, if you happen to ask why a word was left untranslated and you get a reply like “the concept can’t be conveyed by Italian words” or even worse, “that’s how we say it in Italy”, you should be suspicious.
A much better answer would be: “I have investigated this issue, reviewing Italian documents which cover the same range of topics. I have reviewed not just translations but also documents originally written in Italian. In the end I established that leaving the word untranslated was the best choice based on context, register, and target audience.”

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5 Comments

  1. Ciao Roberto, thank you for this interesting take on the use of English words in translation.

    I recently wrapped up a 10-month contract with a cybersecurity firm in Silicon Valley. While the German translations keep a great deal of English words (such as phishing), I made sure the Spanish translations used sensible translations.

    In some respects, the key is not to pretend to be a semanticist. The French now use courriel for electronic mail, both in Canada and in France. And ‘cloud computing’ is just a buzzword we need to dissect for what it really is before translating it by hanging on the semantics of the word ‘cloud.’

    A cloud, in this sense, is nothing more than a network (public or private, or a hybrid). Broadly speaking, cloud is the Internet (not just the WWW). An example: my client’s product, a cloud to distribute advance malware information to its subscribers, is translated as “the private cloud XYZ.” Nothing about nubes, my friend.

    And I swear on my stack of dictionaries that I’m not a spammer.

  2. Roberto Crivello

    Hi Mario,

    Thanks for your comment. Even though Italians use mainly the English word “cloud”, the also use the literal translation “nuvola” when the text is nor simply technical, but also marketing-oriented. So for example a title like “Choose the cloud you prefer” in a offering of several options for cloud services, might become “Scegli la ‘nuvola’ che vuoi”. (Note, however, how ‘nuvola’ would be between quotes.)

  3. As in most translations, the audience should be considered in whether we select the English term that is well understood by engineers and computer geeks but may be less familiar to the ordinary consumer. Some terms do not have good translations (yet) or may sound old-fashioned if translated. But in consumer advertising, in several of the languages to which we translate, one can often be a bit non-consistent, i.e. introduce the English term but then slip in the less common translation or at least an explanation somewhere. It takes a bit of skill but works and reads well. By the way, Germans often adapt spelling and pronunciation and sometimes even change the meaning a little.

  4. Hi Roberto,

    interesting post (I’ve read also the ones about “stewardship” and “movimentare i passeggeri”).

    What really leaves me astonished is the rate of adoption (if temporary, hopefully) of English words in general speech on tv, in movie titles (left untranslated even when they would be easily translated) and even in commercials. I really don’t understand how a slogan can be more effective if in English (even Fiat does it).
    I think there’s a mix of lazyness and lack of self-esteem in this assault of English words. What do you think?

  5. Roberto Crivello

    Hi Fausto,

    I am not sure about the lack of self-esteem. Another reason is snobbery. And lazyness for sure, resulting from poor knowledge of English. The better you know English, the less you use English words in your Italian.

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