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Spanish Translations – What to Do When a Word Doesn't Exist

Susana C. Schultz
Strictly Spanish LLC, Cincinnati, Ohio

There are a lot of opinions when it comes to English words that cannot be translated by using an "accepted-by-Real-Academia-Española (RAE)” word, and yet we as translators have to come up with a solution and most definitely a word, whether it is in the RAE dictionary or not.

The English language is always changing and new words are being coined all the time. How does Spanish, or any other language, keep up with those changes? By doing the same the English does—coining new words.

What can translators do to come up with the right nuance, meaning and, finally, the right translation that keeps true to the source? We either create new words by consensus among various translators and/or entities, or use words that other people have already coined and are being widely used already, whether they are included in RAE or not.

How do we come up with such words? The way I do it is by searching every dictionary I can get my hands on, talking to other translators, and finally, when everything has been exhausted and yet there is no word, by searching in google.

What terms do I use in my search? I try to come up with what I think might be the Spanish word and search that way with the English word in parenthesis, or use the English word if it could be a Spanish word itself; whatever method I use, I always do an advanced search and request pages only in Spanish.

An example is the English word "incremental” which doesn't appear in the RAE dictionary or in their website, www.rae.es. When you do a google search, and then do an advanced search and select Spanish as the language of the pages to be returned, you will get 50,900 hits, which tells me I can use that word and keep its English meaning. Actually, a month ago that number was 47,300!!! This means that the use of "incremental” is growing exponentially, confirming my decision to use that word in translations.

I know that some of you out there might think that doing this goes against everything we were taught in school and against the purity of the language. I know some of you will disagree with my approach. As linguists and translators we have to be flexible to the changes that usage generates. Not using a word because RAE hasn’t approved its use, when google tells you that Spanish-speaking people are using it all over the world is not only ludicrous, but not fair to the client that wants the Spanish translation to reflect the English.

When we coin a new word, because of use, in a few years it becomes accepted by everyone and eventually makes it to the famous RAE dictionary, so that all of you that might criticize my approach, three or four years later will no doubt be using the same word that I have been using all along. I just gave my client an edge by being proactive and using a new word. Earlier in my career, I was involved in the creation of a word: recycle and its derivates. There was no word to say recycle because no one even understood its concept in the Spanish-speaking world, let alone do it or have a word for it. So, I contacted RAE and got nowhere. Because it was a U.S. issue, I contacted the U.S.-Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., and asked if something had already been created. Nothing existed that they were aware of, so right there and then I suggested a word and together we created the word "reciclar". Today, this word is in the RAE dictionary.

All the time I hear translators say that they can't use this or that word because "it doesn't exist in Spanish", and I hear them criticize other translators that use a word that according to them "doesn't exist in Spanish". What they are really trying to say is that the word is not in the RAE dictionary. If people all over the world are using a word, to me that word does exist.

So, before we decide not to use a word because we are concerned that it is not accepted or it “doesn't exist in Spanish”, let’s remember and apply what RAE itself says about the subject:

“Las lenguas cambian de continuo, y lo hacen de modo especial en su componente léxico. Por ello los diccionarios nunca están terminados: son una obra viva que se esfuerza en reflejar la evolución registrando nuevas formas y atendiendo a las mutaciones de significado.

In English:

"Languages are constantly changing, and their lexical components do it in a special way. That is why dictionaries are never finished: they are works in progress that are trying to reflect the evolution by registering new forms and taking into consideration the meaning mutations.”

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As linguists and translators we have to be flexible to the changes that usage generates.