Anglicisms, loanwords etc.: free software translation dilemmas

Translating software is much simpler than translating literature, but it still provides translators some dilemmas. Information technology is full of English expressions which other cultures assimilated to some degree, even if sometimes there are proper expressions in the native language. Free software translators (at least the Brazilian ones) recurrently discuss about whether to adopt an English word, hence I decided to do some research on the subject.

A loanword (or loan word) is an imported word which was adapted to the local spelling and pronunciation habits; it’s very common in Brazil, but not so much in Portugal. We call it anglicism, gallicism etc. according to the origin, but we often forget to count as loanwords the “latinisms” and “hellenisms” acquired in the last centuries. Being derived from colloquial Latin, the Portuguese language assimilates easily Latin and Greek (and French) words, but the same can’t be said about English words. We played (british) “football” for decades before calling it “futebol”, but the weirdest disease names can be easily adapted.

When an imported word keeps its original ortography and phonetics, it’s called simply a foreign word. Theoretically, foreign words are relatively unknown, and were imported recently. When they are assimilated to the language, they would be adapted to loanwords. In reality, however, some words keep the original spelling and pronunciation indefinetively, e. g. music-related words (“presto”, “staccato” and so on). Information technology words are usually kept in the original (even if sometimes there is an adequate substitute in the language), but as in the “football” case, maybe it’s just a matter of time. There are, of course, some mixed cases. In Portuguese, for instance, Greek words may keep the original trailing “n”, even Portuguese words don’t end like this. Personally, I believe it’s amusing to see French words in the English language; they keep the spelling but not the pronunciation!

Calque, also called loan translation, is the translation of every part of a foreign word or expression, resulting in a new word or expression. “Skyscraper”, in example, was translated to many other languages, effectively creating a new word from the translations of “sky” and “scrap”. While Brazilians translate “goal keeper” as “goleiro”, in Portugal it’s called “guarda-metas”, which is a literal word-by-word translation. Loan meaning, on the other hand, is using a native word for the new meaning. In Portugal, for instance, “mouse” is always translated as “rato”, but in Brazil the computer device is kept as a foreign word even if the rodent is called “rato”. Some times the translation is less straight forward. In Brazil, the Sapucaí indian tribe created the “Aiú irú rive” expression to translate “computer”; it means literally “language-storing box”.

Sometimes things go wrong, and we get false friends. In Portuguese “marmelada” is a sweet made of quince (“marmelo”), but in English “marmalade” became a sweet from citrus fruit. On the other hand, Brazilians call “shopping center” what English speakers call “mall”, and “office boy” what English speakers call “messenger”. (By the way, false cognates and false friends are not the same thing.)

There are many reasons to borrow words foreign words. Sometimes there isn’t a good translation for the expression, or there are many possible translations and no one becomes more popular than the original one. Snobbishness is a frequent reason to loan a foreign word. Finally, when new concepts are introduced in a culture together with a foreign word, it becomes very difficult for people to name the new concepts differently. In the information technology field, in example, Brazilians call the “mouse” (computer device) just like that, while the rodent is called “rato”.

Borrowing words from foreign languages is inherent to live languages, even if it’s bound to geopolitical and cultural factors. Translating free software makes the software accessible by people other than English speakers, but is also a way of strengthening native languages. When a translator keeps a foreign word untranslated, how much is he promoting his own culture? The articles on the subject are primarily descriptive, not prescriptive. Not even dictionaries agree on the subject! It seems like we’ll have to figure the answer out by ourselves.

Addendum: a good place to start is this statement from a Russian linguist: It is Russian words used incorrectly that damages the purity of the language not the introduction of foreign words. Ulisses de Carvalho, Brazilian translator, seems to think so, too.

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