Translators Coining New Words—Faux Pas or Fo Sho?

Toy Letters - TranslationTranslation has us constantly hunting for the perfect word. Sometimes it even forces us to make up new words.

Not so long ago, I stumbled upon the word “kilometrage” in an English text (translated from French) and immediately pulled out my three favourite dictionaries. I couldn’t find it. I checked a few online English resources. Nada. Then I dove into some translation sites, and whammo! There it was.

I raised an eyebrow. Why didn’t the translator just use the word “mileage”? It’s in every dictionary, people use it, and it’s easier to pronounce. What’s the big deal?

The deal is that it’s tough to calculate your mileage when you travel in clicks. Perhaps the text was for a Canadian audience and the translator simply thought “kilometrage” would be more apt, despite not being in the dictionary. I was even starting to think that the translator was right. After all, why shouldn’t translators be able to coin words?

Shakespeare coined a whole whack of words and phrases, like “amazement,” “fashionable,” and “method in the madness.” Teens have also contributed their fair share, like the recent surge of “YOLOs.”

If, as translators, we’re asked to translate concepts that exist in one language into a language where that concept does not yet exist (believe me, it happens!), doesn’t that merit us the right to coin the appropriate words?  I’ve always thought that translators had the innate ability to determine if a word works or not. So if you think the word fits and that other native speakers will understand it—I say go for it!

What do you think—is it OK for translators to coin new words? Have you ever wished you could just make up a word?


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