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Words Matter: Translating IT metaphors is not always easy

Barbara McClintock
(Language Update, Volume 7, Number 4, 2010, page 34)

As a result of technological advances and the flexibility of English, new words are being created at lightning speed. The Wall Street Journal published an article1 in October 2009 on how English neologisms are officially translated into French—a frustratingly slow process. The author, Max Colchester, was intrigued to learn that France’s Commission générale de terminologie et de néologie spent 18 months trying to agree on a French translation for cloud computing. Colchester learned that three organizations, including the Académie française, must vet a French equivalent for an English expression, and it must receive a government minister’s seal of approval according to the rules of the Délégation générale à la langue française et aux langues de France. The terminology research results may be found on the FranceTerme website. According to the author, each of France’s ministries has at least one terminology committee, and some 300 terms are officially introduced into the French language every year.2

Computer terms are often rooted in metaphor. The Web is like a spider’s web and websites are flies caught in the Web. We don’t think of them in metaphorical terms! Are there any sci-fi fans among our readers? Cyberspace (cyberespace or monde virtuel) is the ultimate metaphor for the imaginary world in which people and computers coexist and includes all areas of online activity.

Most translations mimic the English metaphors. For example, a computer mouse looks something like a real mouse: it becomes souris in French and ratón in Spanish. What about a tablet, which is a hot new type of mobile computer controlled by the user’s finger on a touch screen? Remember the ten commandments on the two stone tablets? Tablet has become a generic name for the tablet-shaped device. In French, it is usually translated by tablette graphique or tablette à numériser, and in Spanish it is called tablilla de gráficos or tablilla gráfica.

You think it looks easy to create terminology? Well, it takes imagination to suggest a term and have it be accepted by the public. French IT terms have great imagery. And many were created in Quebec, such as informatique (computer science), pirate informatique (hacker), courriel (email), pourriel (spam) and clavardage (chat), to name only a few.

What does cloud computing mean anyway?

Cloud is a metaphor for the Internet, but when it is combined with the word computing, the meaning “gets bigger and fuzzier.”3 Cloud computing, translated by the French government as informatique en nuage on its FranceTerme website, originally meant all Internet-based computing where resources, software and information are shared as electricity is on the power grid.4 It has come to mean a computer network, including all the shared resources of a particular user group. For example, many Internet and telecom companies have developed their own clouds or will soon. Since cloud (or nuage) is used in so many expressions, the French terminologists wanted to avoid choosing a translation that might refer to “in the clouds” or some other existing phrase.

Phishing and vishing

Phishing (hameçonnage, pêche aux données personnelles) involves the theft of sensitive personal information. Spammers who are “fishing” send emails that appear to be from legitimate companies, but instead of catching fish, they want your personal information, such as PINs and passwords. A number of websites speculate that the ph was inspired by a type of hacker, called a phracker, who combines phone phreaking (breaking into the telephone system to make free calls) with computer hacking. Vishing (hameçonnage vocal), which is short for “voice phishing,” offers an added twist. In addition to scam emails, vishers send voicemails or call you on the phone to try to obtain your personal information.5

Spam, spammer and spim

SPAM, a trademark for luncheon meat, was first used (with another meaning) on the Monty Python show in 1970. Spam and spammer (pourriel and polluposteur) are metaphors related to putting unwanted email into someone’s mailbox, which is similar to waiters putting unwanted SPAM into food, as originally suggested by the Monty Python skit.6

Instant messaging is not safe from spam—known as spim (pourriel par messagerie instantanée) in this case—a blend of spam and IM, an abbreviation for instant messaging.7

Tweet and Twitter

After a debate raged in the blogosphere in summer 2010, sparked by a New York Times editor8 who suggested that, outside ornithological contexts, tweet (microbillet) should be treated as colloquial rather than as standard English, I was astonished to discover that the 2010 Collins Canadian Dictionary has accepted tweet to mean “a short message posted on the Twitter website.”9

Twitter, a trademark, is a repository for a wide range of information. Even the AP Stylebook tweets about up-to-the-minute changes to its online version, such as the spelling of website. According to a recent tweet, the Associated Press decided to adopt website instead of Web site because of reader input.10

Note: The source of French terms in this article is TERMIUM Plus® unless otherwise indicated.

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