Translating Computer Terms

January 20th, 2013
translating computer terms

Computers are supposed to make our lives easier.

From a translation services point of view, computers are both a godsend in the form of the tools they have given us that make our jobs easier – and a terrible affliction when you have to actually translate computer-related terms into a target language.

Collocations and Madness

Computer jargon, like any set of jargon, is designed to both speed up communication between initiates and obscure the field from outsiders. In order to be an initiate, you have to understand the jargon, and the jargon also acts as a focus, bringing very specifically-defined terms to bear to reduce any chances of misunderstanding or miscommunication.

Jargon is always difficult to translate, because you need to understand both the source language as well as the jargon, which can be viewed as a sub-dialect of various languages. But computer jargon can be particularly challenging because of the number of collocations it uses.

A collocation, in language terms, is two or more words that, when used together in a specific context, have a meaning separate and distinct from their individual definitions. The computer term hard drive, for example, is a collocation. Hard drives are in fact hard, but if you translate this term literally you will sound ignorant and ridiculous – the word drive here has to be understood as distinct from the actual definition of the word. You can see how this can become frustrating very quickly. Another good example is hot link. You may know what the words hot and link mean in normal context, but in the realm of computer jargon they combine to mean something else entirely.

Special Skills

As a result, you need more than the normal skills of a document translation professional to work on anything that uses computer jargon. You also need a deep familiarity with computer terms and how these collocations work so you can offer a sensible rather than literal translation.

The challenge is that much of this jargon was devised by a small group of specialists initially working in a very small, tight-knit group of high-level expertise. Much of the jargon consists of in-jokes and purposefully colourful or even off-colour references, corruptions of existing technical terms, and terms adopted from technical subcultures. If you Google for something called the Jargon File, you will discover a rich world of terms and names that are often fascinating in their unusual etymology.

In fact, if you’re going to attempt a high quality translation involving a lot of computer terms, it might be required reading!