Wordspace graphic from TED conference given by MIT cognitive scientist Deb Roy
Photo by Marius B. taken of a TED conference given by MIT cognitive scientist Deb Roy © 2011 used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license

Language, in my case French, is sometimes insufficient for expressing new realities. Technology and other innovation-rich fields are fertile ground for new words, or neologisms. Looking at the rapidly evolving cultural and technological landscapes, translators can expect to confront language deficiencies more frequently as language tries to keep up with the changes in society.

As language’s gatekeepers, translators choose certain words over others as they carefully craft a translation. With this in mind, how should a translator approach the translation of a neologism when the situation arises?

It’s not in the dictionary

As I was translating a TED Talk entitled The Birth of a Word, the speaker described the concept of wordscape; in this context, a brief definition would be “the visual representation created by analyzing large amounts of data about the language development of a child.” Wordscape has not yet made its way into a dictionary.

Of course, many useful words are not in the dictionary. A quick search online also revealed that wordscape, as defined above, does not seem to have been translated in French yet.

There are several ways to approach the translation of neologisms. For example, it’s sometimes possible to use a paraphrase or the untranslated source word along with a footnote. However, in the context of a TED Talk, it wasn’t possible to use these translation approaches. In subtitling, space is an issue. There is no room for a translator’s note, a paraphrase, a definition, etc. I had to come up with a creative way to communicate this new concept.

An opportunity for wordplay

Before creating a neologism I would suggest exhausting all other options. Since I could not find a solution and using the English word was not suitable due to morphological differences that may affect comprehension, I decided to create a new word in French.

This is how I approached this word puzzle:

  • I used online and paper dictionaries for research and brainstorming.
  • I focused on Latin and Greek suffixes and words since these are likely to sound familiar to a French speaker.
  • I discussed ideas and options with knowledgeable colleagues.
  • The visual image associated with the concept was also very helpful in directing my search for the right word.
  • I then kept in mind the usual way in which words are formed: derivation (nanotechnology), compounding (hash tag), blending (elderhostel) and borrowing (robot, Czech in origin), etc.

So here it is: wordcape = panoramot. A new French word derived from panorama (Greek), meaning an unbroken view of an entire surrounding area, and mot (Latin), meaning word.

Have you ever had to translate a neologism?

What approach did you use? Would you be willing to create a new word or would you find other solutions? In what fields do you usually notice neologisms? What’s your favorite new word?

Suggested viewing: To listen to the TED Talk, The Birth of a Word, click here.

Erin McKeans’ talk on lexicography is both informative and entertaining. Find out how our interaction with dictionaries and language is being transformed. Go to: The joy of lexicography.