What This Top Ten List Says About Dictionaries…and Translation

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When I came upon this list of Merriam-Webster lexicographers’ ten favorite definitions, I expected to discover some really poetic, intriguing words, and probably learn a few new ones, as well.  But that wasn’t what happened.

Instead of unusual or beautiful words, the lexicographers chose terms like “LASIK” and phrases like “film noir”.  Okay, I thought, maybe the definitions are exceptionally eloquent or clever.  But they were mostly just like any decent dictionary definition: short and to the point, while still clearly explaining the word or phrase they’re defining.

For example, here’s the number nine word and its definition: “cute: attractive or pretty especially in a childish, youthful, or delicate way”.

It turns out that brevity and clarity are the qualities that matter most to lexicographers.  I guess it makes sense; even though they’re clearly passionate about words and wordplay, they’re also passionate about their job.  And they have a great point, because these definitions do exactly what they’re intended to do. (Well, except the one for “thistledown”, which even the list’s editor admits would require looking up several other words in the definition.  That one made it into the top ten for being “alliterative, scientific, and sexy”.)

So I did end up learning something from the article — just not what I’d expected.  The piece also got me thinking:  With some exceptions (for example, literary translation, where the author’s voice has to be respected above all), translating is a lot like creating dictionary definitions.  Just as a dictionary has to convey the meaning of words in a language, a translation has to convey the meaning of a word adapted from an original document or other source.  And like a successful dictionary, a successful translation will be seamless – the audience should never be scratching their head.

Of course, as the Merriam-Webster list shows, doing this isn’t as easy as it seems.  While lexicographers have to get to the heart of a word and explain it in a neutral, informative, concise way, translators have to be sure they’re choosing the closest possible equivalent to a word or phrase.  Sometimes that may be a process similar to, well, looking up something in a dictionary.  But other times it gets a lot more complex.  For example, if a translator sees the phrase Il pleuvait des cordes, they could translate it as, “It was pouring rain”.  Or they could use the idiomatic equivalent, “It was raining cats and dogs”. Which one to choose?

There are other similarities between definitions and translations.  When defining concepts that are pretty well-known to most contemporary dictionary users, lexicographers have to remove themselves from that similarity, to try to explain the word as plainly as possible.  Translators have to do something similar, but with a twist: transcreation, the process of not only translating, but localizing content.

There are many examples of this in the advertising and entertainment world.  Take movie titles: In France, “American Hustle” was changed to “American Bluff”.  The reason is that while most French people probably don’t know the meaning of “hustle”, or might associate it with the magazine Hustler (not what the movie’s about), “bluff” is a common, borrowed English word that’s easily understood by most French speakers and means basically the same thing as the term it replaced.

Maybe the most important thing translation and lexicography have in common is that they usually attract people who are passionate about language, and about communicating words and ideas to others.  Which is a very lucky thing for everyone who relies on their services; the world would be a lot less understandable without them.

by Alysa Salzberg

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