Choosing the right word is an essential part of any creative work – we probably spend the most time asking ourselves: how shall I express it? In some cases the final effect depends fully on one word or expression. However, what shall we do if we can’t find the right one?

The most expensive words

The highest prices are paid for single words in the titles of the pieces of art, nowadays especially movies and books. The original titles are given by the authors, but the translations usually lice their own lives and get out of control. Tolkien named his book The Lord of the Rings, but could not influence the title in other languages – it can be The Ruler, The King, The Master or The Somebody Else of The Rings.

There are a lot of websites with ranking lists of the worst movie titles and their translations. Especially the latter are the favourite topic to make fun of. Rightly?

Most reviewers seem to assume that the translation of a movie title should be done precisely. That’s why Die Hard with Bruce Willis is one of the most popular titles in the above-mentioned ranking lists, no matter in which language. Not everybody knows that Die Hard is a slang expression for Hard to kill.

Some want to do it “overprecisely”, like Germans. Stirb langsam means Die slowly… as if they thought the original title is an imperative. Dying slowly is probably hard… Another, like Latin American countries, kept it safe – Duro de matar is nothing more and nothing less than Hard to kill. However, in Spain the movie is known as Jungla the cristal (The Glass Jungle). This translation has been criticised a lot, as often as a Polish title of this movie (Szklana pułapka means The Glass Trap). But is this criticism justified? Both titles match pretty well the storyline of the first part – another parts had probably not been planned yet at that moment.

On the other hand, there are quite a lot of translations that haven’t established themselves in their countries. Dirty Dancing has been tried to be sold in Poland as The Spinning Sex (Wirujący seks). Despite the use of the three-letter (or four-letter in the original Polish title) keyword Dirty Dancing remained simply Dirty Dancing in that country. Nobody was brave enough to translate Pretty Woman, probably because of the Elvis Presley’s song – song titles are hardly ever translated. Musicals are treated very carefully as well – Grease translated in German or Polish would not sound attractive. John Travolta as main actor could have been insufficient to sell the musical in those countries if the title had not remained in its original form. Nevertheless, in Latin America the musical was called Brillantina or Vaselina. The former could be easily explained with Danny Zuko’s hair, but the latter could have various meanings…

No word found? Be the first, invent it!

Vocabulary is like technology. If nothing meet our expectations, we can create an own one. Develop, publish, patent. Especially in the area of technology terms in any other language than English and maybe German (if it originates from there) could be missing. And it applies not only to the latest ones.

Deep drawing as a sheet metal forming technology is already known for a longer time. However, in some languages a right term for this manufacturing method is still missing. German engineers know it very well as Tiefziehen, in Spanish it is called embutición, but what about Polish? No term found, neither in dictionaries, nor in Wikipedia, nor in another available source. I talked with some Polish specialists about that and nobody was able to give me an unambiguous term describing this forming process.

This will not change until someone finds an expression that would be accepted by most of the sheet metal forming specialists in Poland. Sometimes one publication is sufficient to change the nomenclature in a specific technological area.

No word found? Use the original one!

Sometimes it is just unwanted to translate some terms. This applies especially to the IT and everything about software.

The more specific the software application, the higher the probability that only English version is available. It concerns both the user interface and the documentation. In some languages classroom trainings are offered, but the training materials (handbooks, presentations, exercises) are usually formulated in English anyway.

That’s why most of the advanced software functions are not translated at all. Here I’m going to refer to the finite element simulation software I know from my professional life. Even the three main modules of this software are called identically in most languages: pre-processor, solver, postprocessor. The first one is to create models, define materials, loads and another boundary conditions. Solver is just the “engine” of the software – it calculates the displacements, stresses and another result variables. In the last one the results can be visualised.

Almost all major software producers offer the user interface only in an English version – it’s understandable. In case of such a high number of advanced functions, translation into any other language would make the handling even more difficult and the technical support would become almost impossible to offer. The phone calls with support hotlines sound hilariously in some countries – new words are often invented in order to explain some functionalities – but the most important thing is: the problem is solved. I’ve even noticed that a lot of users of the CAD software prefer not to install the user interface in their native language and work with the English one.

In the areas of marketing, finances and generally in business topics there is a similar tendency. The best way to notice it is to check the job advertisements, especially the names of the positions. Let’s have a look at – the first Polish employment website for marketing and modern sales:

After choosing one of the job ads, there is a description of the position written in Polish. Actually, it makes no sense to fight against this phenomenon. Project Managers, Sales Assistants, Senior Engineers, CEOs, CFOs and another CXOs – those names are known in the majority of countries. A uniform denomination of the positions has got advantages – it is much easier to compare the tasks, responsibilities and salaries for the same jobs in different places. Besides, it just sounds good to introduce oneself as a Scrum Master, especially for someone who doesn’t know what a scrum master actually does. And it’s OK – scrum masters anyway have to face a lot of aggressive opinions about their work and sense of their existence.

Finances and investment – another area with a lot of Anglicisms: venture capital, private equity, factoring, hedging and another “-ings” that are not translated into another languages. In the management we have exactly the same – how would you translate Lean Management into any other language? There were some attempts, but the word Lean unexpectedly became quite controversial. If we understand lean as slim, a slim production or management is instantaneously associated with drastic rationalising measures, including dismissals and cutting of wages. On the other hand, the word slim itself somehow calls some negative association – maybe because somebody does not fit in a slim fit shirt or trousers. Lean is actually a topic for a separate article, so it will probably better to close it in this one after these several words.

However, English isn’t the first global language – there was Latin before. In the world of science it’s still the official language. Every species of animals and plants has got its unambiguous Latin name. And in other languages? Not really, it depends where they live. Some insect migrate due to climatic changes or they are just transported in planes or naval vessels into another regions. Or both simultaneously, like this wasp:

Its Latin name is Sceliphron destillatorium. 7 years ago I saw it a lot of times in Spain, in the last years it has become very popular in Germany. This year a lot of Polish services have written articles about it – mostly in order to tranquilise the people that they don’t sting painfully…

In German it’s mostly called Große Mörtelgrabwespe – a big wasp digging in the mortar. The poles call it Gliniarz naścienny. And I’m sorry to say that I haven’t found any English name.

No word found? Describe it!

It’s not always possible to stay at the original term – not always the original language can be found. Then there is no other way – we have to describe the expression with more words.

Example? Less known physical quantities, e.g. further derivatives of the displacement with respect to the time. The first one is velocity, the second is the acceleration – we learned it at school. Are there any further? The third one, so the change of acceleration with respect to time, is called jerk. The fourth’s name is jounce or snap. We can also find the English names for the fifth and sixth one – crackle and pop. In Polish the denominations stop at the fourth derivative (udar), in German already at the third (Ruck). So, in the latter we have to describe the snap as “the change of jerk in time” or “fourth derivative of the displacement with respect to the time” – obviously expressed in German.

German is generally a “word building friendly” language – the aggregate words-descriptions can become extremely long. Until 2013 in the German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern there was a law called Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz. Everybody who had to learn German knows the special challenge to decrypt these “words-snakes”. How to do it? From right to left!

Gesetz – law

Übertragung – delegation

Aufgabe – task

Überwachung – supervision

Etikettierung – labelling

Rindfleisch – beef

So, we have a law about the delegation of tasks regarding the supervision of the labelling of the beef. The law became effective due to the BSE hazard and was abandoned as soon as the danger was gone.

Sometimes we stay a few hours or even days thinking about one word or expression. But it’s worth it – a good decision is profitable, not only monetary. The effects will stay with us with all their advantages and drawbacks. Also with mistakes, which are very difficult and expensive to correct afterwards. It often makes no more sense to change anything – later corrections lower the level of trust, irritate the receiver or just don’t establish themselves.

Sources of the pictures: