Selecting and Creating new words

Your language does not have a word for a certain computer term – what do you do? Many people decide to leave the term in English. However, please take a moment to think about why you are translating this software. Will people who use your language be able to identify or understand the English word? Will they even be able to read it? If the answer is no then you need to look at creating or adapting the word.

Choosing a new word

  • Find the correct translated word. This is the simplest and best approach but often however this comes overs time. You may need to go back and revise word choices to eliminate confusion. For instance the same word for Cancel and Delete was used in our Xhosa translation until the translators grasped the potential confusion and corrected the mistake. If you didin’t understand the implications in this example consider that ‘Cancel’ is a safe option (go back and ignore everything I was doing) while ‘Delete’ is a destructive option (you will remove files from your computer). Clearly you need very different words.
  • No word exists. Think about what the word means. Make use of, to check on the word’s definition. Be careful with some words eg. ‘Port’ which have very different meanings in the computer world. Once you understand the meaning of the words and the idea that needs to be conveyed try to identify a phrase or word that conveys the same meaning in your language.
  • Nope nothing. OK you’re stuck with an English word which you can’t or don’t want to translate. Try transliteration. That is take the word and change its spelling and pronunciation to better match your language. This way at least people familiar with the language will be able to read and pronounce the word. English language speakers have been doing this for a very long time.
  • Still nothing. Leave it in English. But remember who your translating for and the problems this may cause them.


Acronyms are words formed from the initial letters of phrases.

  • HTTP – HyperText Transfer Protocol

We often choose to leave these as they are as the meaning of the acronym is to most people disasociated with the actual words that make up the acronym. Some languages do choose to define

the expanded acronyms in their language but keep the original English acronym. Finally some languages have translations of these acronyms, use them if you feel that they are widely used and understood by your audience. Languages that fall into this category usually have well established and government supported terminology development units or language boards

You need to weigh up whether a translated acronuym will help or hinder. Not being aware of http may cause some people to battle with accessing the internet.


The following email reply from Chusslove Illich (caslav ilic at gmx net) gives some more pointers when creating new words.

> [: Dwayne Bailey :]
> But don't be too paranoid as even if they're not the best word they
> are merely place holders for ideas.  People will learn what these
> ideas are.

I think this is very important point. Often, translators try to think of
translation which is "intuitively understood", "friendly to the
beginners", etc. In my opinion, these considerations are almost
counter-productive, as then one easily ends up with translations which are
of questionable usability -- not determining original idea uniquely enough
or simply too long.

An example of this from my language would be "formal translation" (ie.
currently used in translation of Windows, KDE and Gnome) of "driver",
which if translated back to English is "management program". It is both
ambiguous (eg. "printer management program" is most certainly not "printer
driver") and way too long.

I think it is better to, whenever possible, draw ideas and associations
from the fields you know to *work*: English language itself, other
languages with long tradition in science, older branches of science in own
native language.

Again, in the example of "driver" in my language, there actually exists an
excellent (IMO, of course) translation, and that is the literal one (of
"driver" in "cattle driver", not in "bus driver"); it is very short (2
syllables, 5 letters only), already used in my language in eg. mechanical
engineering, used in many European languages (eg. German "der Treiber"),
and keeps the same association as in English (it "drives" the device).

> You might want to involve some linguists in the translation as they
> will be better equipped to select and adapt words.

This would also be a great advantage. Whenever you want to use
transcription of English word, or coin a new native word, linguist can
tell you whether it fits well into spelling and pronunciation rules of
your language.

Also, he can signal whether a coined word is following the language
tradition (ie. will not sound too unnatural to the speakers) or not. Eg. in
my language it is not traditional to make double-noun or noun-verb
composite words, but there is a large set of usual prefixoids/suffixoids
that can be used.