Naming the unnamed: how to create a vocabulary for new technology

by Kristin Fehlauer

One of the best things about my job is that I get to translate, and thus learn about, new developments in research and technology. Some of these ideas won’t hit the market for months or even years to come. It’s exciting to see “behind the scenes” and find out what researchers and scientists are working on to make our lives easier, safer, better.

But moving into unknown areas presents an interesting linguistic challenge. As a translator, I’m being asked to describe and sometimes name things that don’t yet exist. How can I make sure I’m choosing terms that are clear to the readership and are consistent with common usage?

Kristin Fehlauer

How far can I go?

Industry 4.0, or Industrie 4.0 in German, presents a great example of this problem. This term is used primarily in German-speaking countries to describe connected manufacturing. In the United States, they tend to speak of the “industrial internet” or the “smart factory.” So when I come across a text that talks about Industrie 4.0, I have a few options. The obvious solution would be to simply call it Industry 4.0 (or industry 4.0 – capitalization is its own issue, see below). This way, clients can see an echo of their original wording in my translation (often very important), so anyone working in or with this area of the company is likely to recognize the term, even if they have only ever heard it in German.

But what if the text is addressing a wider audience – say, the Hong Kong location of a German company? Will the employees there know what the parent company is referring to? Or will they be more familiar with a different term? What if it’s intended for the general public, not employees of the company? If I go with “industrial internet,” we have to know if that is an international term or one used solely within the United States. Depending on the tone and format of the communication, another option would be to use a solution close to the German original and then briefly define it in parentheses or a footnote. Space available for the text, tone/register, linguistic leaning of the reader, client preference – all these are factors to consider when translating in general, and they become even more important when there is no firmly established precedent.

Naming the unnamed

Ripple effects

It wasn’t all that long ago that we were still undecided in our team whether or not to translate the German word “Digitalisierung” as digitization or digitalization. To a certain extent there’s a clear distinction: digitization is converting analog formats to digital ones, and digitalization refers to the move into (business) areas that are online and connected. There is some overlap, however, and at the time this difference wasn’t quite so clear-cut. And because we were translating texts that would eventually be shared with an audience of experts and also be searchable online, we were aware that our choices would have an effect – albeit a comparatively minor one – on the language used to discuss this phenomenon.

Sometimes it’s not the word itself but how it’s written. We used to talk about the Internet and the World Wide Web, but somewhere along the way, it became more and more common to write these as “the internet” and simply “the web.” By extension, if you write about the internet, logically you should write about the internet of things. But what about industry 4.0? Should it be capitalized to set it apart as a new concept or phenomenon as we did with “internet” several decades ago, or should we treat it like any other common noun? These seemingly trivial issues are ones that we spend much time debating, because we know how much our answers can reverberate. If I translate a text that is going to be available online, other translators and communications professionals may be looking at my work as they do their own research and checking. We want our solutions to be consistent with our past work, we have to ensure that they reflect current common usage, and we are aware that they will set precedents. And tight turnaround times often mean we can’t afford to mull over every eventuality that may emerge down the line.

Rising to the challenge

It can be frustrating to work amid this uncertainty; it’s way more pleasant to work on a text where you recognize all the words and know their equivalents in the target language. But it’s exciting, too. And ultimately, after we have done our research and considered various options, the client has the final say. That’s just one reason why good client communication is important; we can explain our reasoning and if necessary collaborate further with the client to find a satisfactory solution. Ours is a small role; this is our way of working behind the scenes on pioneering developments in science and technology.

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