WAAT #61: Crafting Neologisms in Literary Translation


Whether we’re crafting translations of authorial neologisms or coining our own neologisms, they require innovative creativity to be easily understood and fit seamlessly into the target language.

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neologisms in literary translation

A Housekeeping Note

As you might have noticed, there was no newsletter last week. This is because I worked on and sent out the monthly Historical Fiction Craft Notes newsletter. Moving forward, to keep my workload balanced and not overwhelm the many subscribers who get both newsletters, there will be three WAAT newsletters and one HFCN newsletter each month. With the three weekly newsletters, one will always be a links roundup (there’s one coming up next week.)

An Update on the First-ever WAAT Translation Trivia Quiz

Thank you to all who participated in this quiz in the last newsletter. At last count, there were 81 responses. Way more than I had expected. That said, the average and median scores were, well, lower than I had imagined. What does this tell us about how much we still need to learn and appreciate about this discipline and field? I’ll be doing more of these every few weeks or so and welcome your trivia facts and resources in the discussion area below.

WAAT 60 Quiz Results 13Mar2023

The questions below had a less than 50% accurate response rate. Interesting, no?

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WAAT 60 Quiz Results 13Mar2023 ii

A Brief Overview of Neologism

A neologism is a newly-coined word or phrase. Essentially, it is either an entirely new word or phrase or a new sense given to an existing word or phrase.

In the English language, Shakespeare is most often cited for having created many new terms during his time that are now part of our official vocabulary. Here’s a well-researched resource at LitCharts that gives us an exact count of 420 words invented by him. Milton created at least two hundred more, per this TIME magazine essay by Paul Dickson.

Some other famous examples of neologisms by writers:

  1. “Newspeak” in George Orwell’s 1984 describes the language of the totalitarian regime depicted in the novel.
  2. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is sprinkled throughout with neologisms like “salvagings” and “unwomen.”
  3. “Cyberspace” was coined by William Gibson in his novel Neuromancer, and has since become a common term to describe the online world.
  4. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things is filled with both nonsense words and neologisms. You could say she created her own unique lexical style. I particularly like “shark smile” and “trying-not-to-cry mouth” because there are no proper English words for these, are there?
  5. My all-time favorite is Charles Dickens because of both his many neologisms and his interesting character names. I’m already on my second copy of A Dickens Glossary for American Readers by Fred Levit because the first fell apart from much use. Did you know, for example, that Dickens is responsible for “rampage” (from Great Expectations)?

While the term “neologism” is itself a neologism (it was coined in the eighteenth century in French, then borrowed by English) neologizing has been going on for centuries. For example, the French Renaissance Pléiade movement, where poets translated classic Greek and Latin texts into vernacular languages and, as a result, invented many neologisms. Similar efforts have happened regularly all over the world when texts have crossed cultural and linguistic boundaries, thanks to, well, literary translators.

Languages also travel with their speakers, who then borrow from and influence other languages. We’ve seen this with the English language, which has borrowed a lot from various Indian languages because of British colonization. As Josephine Livingstone wrote some ten years ago in Prospect Magazine, in a review of a then-new abridged edition of Hobson-Jobson by Kate Teltscher:

Best of all, the more we learn about this little lexicon, the more we can talk about all this: our oddly absorbent language, the things the British did in the name of Empire, the inestimable debt we owe the countries and cultures that were and are tethered to us by history.

Livingstone, Josephine. “How We Got Pukka.” Prospect Magazine, June 28, 2013. https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/arts-and-books/hobson-jobson-henry-yule-kate-teltscher.

In multilingual cultures like the one I grew up in, neologisms are so commonplace in our everyday lives from a young age that, oftentimes, we don’t even realize when we’re doing it. In fact, the neologism process has been so widespread for centuries that they’ve helped us develop multiple hybrid languages. Chutnefying English, edited by Rita Kothari and Rupert Snell, is about one such hybridization filled with neologisms: Hinglish. As Harish Trivedi writes in his foreword:

For languages do not exist in watertight compartments, they are organic things and, when placed alongside each other, they always interact. In fact, languages feed on each other almost cannibalistically; if they did not, they would die.

Trivedi, Harish. “Foreword.” In Chutnefying English, 1st ed., vii–xxvii. India: Penguin Global, 2012.

And whenever the world experiences some massive shift, like the recent global pandemic, entire mini-lexicons come into being across almost all linguistic systems. Germany’s “coronacoinage” includes at least 1200 words at last check per this NPR report.

Why Neologisms Matter

Whether neologisms happen because we lack mastery in a particular language or whether they happen because of a lack of equivalence or concordance between certain words or expressions in two languages, the practice has definitely enriched every language involved. As Steven Pinker writes in The Sense of Style:

Neologisms also replenish the lexical richness of a language, compensating for the unavoidable loss of words and erosion of senses. Much of the joy of writing comes from shopping from the hundreds of thousands of words that English makes available, and it’s good to remember that each of them was a neologism in its day.

Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. United States: Penguin Books, 2014.

As with everything in life, though, not all neologisms are viewed positively. For example, some folks balk at the idea of “verbing” (also discussed by Pinker in the above book.) This is when a noun is used as a verb. Here are some examples from my former corporate life:

  • “How will X impact Y?”
  • “Can we ballpark that product development budget?”
  • “I’ve been tasked with too many deliverables and been asked to timeline the project for the umpteenth time.”

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And we are all familiar with the academic speak problems that philosopher Denis Dutton contentiously defined as language crimes in 1999 at the Wall Street Journal and made the basis of his “Bad Writing Contest“:

The pretentiousness of the worst academic writing betrays it as a kind of intellectual kitsch, analogous to bad art that declares itself “profound” or “moving” not by displaying its own intrinsic value but by borrowing these values from elsewhere. Just as a cigar box is elevated by a Rembrandt painting, or a living room is dignified by sets of finely bound but unread books, so these kitsch theorists mimic the effects of rigor and profundity without actually doing serious intellectual work. Their jargon-laden prose always suggests but never delivers genuine insight.

Dutton, Denis. “Language Crimes.” Wall Street Journal, February 5, 1999. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB918105259720869000.

Finally, there are the more extreme cases of state-enforced neologisms like the ones that began in Thailand before World War II as part of their twelve ratthaniyom or cultural mandates.

Crafting Neologisms: Common Approaches and Some Resources

Neologisms are not nonsense words like Lewis Carroll created in Jabberwocky (to be fair, some of his words, like “chortle”, are now common usage, but mostly they are called “nonce” words.) To me, they’re not even the clever kind of wordplay created by James Joyce in Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, even though they were carefully wrought from his own plurilingualism and translation practice. Mostly, they are words in the process of becoming or that have recently become part of our mainstream usage.

Typically, there are three phases—creation (where, technically, the word or phrase is called a protologism), trial, and establishment—and the progression of a word or phrase through these is not always linear or unidirectional. Sometimes, the neologism might cycle through these phases a few times before either dying out or becoming firmly entrenched.

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The most common approaches to crafting them are as follows:

  • Conjoining to create portmanteau words
  • Collocating words in new ways
  • Changing verbs into adjectives
  • Changing nouns into verbs
  • Adding prefixes
  • Adding suffixes
  • Using loan words (original or modified) from other languages
  • Giving a word or phrase new meaning by changing or extending its semantic usage
  • Disambiguating a word or phrase
  • Using an eponym (the name of the inventor, discoverer, or brand)
  • Abbreviating or acronymizing a word or phrase

In other words, neologisms always build on something that is already in place so that they are easily understandable and can fit seamlessly into the target language.

In Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little, Christopher Johnson writes:

Good neologisms sound fresh and perfectly natural at the same time. Naturalness results from respecting the normal cadences of speech and the sounds of the words used, as well as the meanings and grammatical functions of the component parts. […] Neologism is the ultimate in microstyle, because it involves poking around under the hood of words and tinkering with their internal structure.

Johnson, Christopher. Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little. United States: W. W. Norton, 2011. (read an excerpt here.)

A good litmus test of when a neologism has become established is when it makes it into the new word lists published by major English dictionaries. Two of my favorite lists are the quarterly updates from the Oxford English Dictionary and the annual list from dictionary.com. Recently, the latter added a list of breads from around the world, including bhakri, paratha, puri, etc. from India. My personal rule of thumb with both my writing and translation work is that, once a non-English word makes it into a well-known English dictionary, I will no longer translate it into English or italicize it for readers.

A check for when a neologism is in the trial phase is when it pops up in major news media. Like, say, the New York Times, which even has its own Twitter bot called NYT_First_Said. The likelihood of such words becoming established in common usage is higher because they’ve likely already been vetted by multiple writers and editors and their readership reach is quite wide. You’ll want to check out the related, but unaffiliated, account NYT_Said_Where also. Max Norman recently wrote a piece in the New Yorker about the NYT’s neologisms and described what they signify:

When the bot isn’t just tripped by a typo, it traces the paper’s ever-changing boundaries of decency and taste, signalling what is now acceptable but also, at least in this case, what goes over the line.

Norman, Max. “Do You Speak New York Times?” New Yorker, March 7, 2023. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/rabbit-holes/do-you-speak-new-york-times.

Another good reference site that includes neologisms and their sources: Word Spy. Be warned: this site will take you down many rabbit holes.

And for the creation phase, if you’re looking for inspiration: thisworddoesnotexist.com. It is exactly what its title says and, yet, a fun way to learn how to craft such words. The above warning applies here also.

Among recent books, I recommend these three for deeper dives:

Translating Neologisms: Authorial Ones and Our Own

Given how much neologisms contribute to and enrich our languages, it’s surprising to find that, beyond academic and scholarly works, there isn’t much being said or written about the creativity and ingenuity of literary translators who coin new words or phrases. In doing so, they are also adding to the evolution of language itself. When done well, such neologisms not only fit naturally in the target language but also maintain the unique cultural and linguistic nuances of the source language. This balance is about cohesion and coherence, as we’ve discussed before. And, to some extent, it’s also a particular response to the perennial foreignization and domestication challenges that we’ve also discussed before.

Tolkien famously reinvented ye olde Englishe with his translations of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and created neologisms that he also leveraged for his own fiction. Here are some other translation-specific examples.

  1. Ken Liu, in his translation of The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, created the word “Sophons” to translate the Chinese word “wēijīshù,” which refers to a form of quantum communication used by an alien civilization in the novel. This is a combination of “Sophie’s choice” and “photons,” and conveys the idea of the difficult choices that the characters must make in the face of the alien threat.
  2. Anthea Bell was a prolific translator of German literature into English and is perhaps best known for her translation of the Asterix comics. She created a number of neologisms in her translations, such as “grobby” from “grobschlächtig.”
  3. Lisa Dillman, in her translation of Juan Filloy’s Op Oloop from Spanish to English, includes the delightful word “abelardize.” It’s not entirely clear what the character who says the word means. It might have something to do with the fact that the medieval French philosopher it references, Peter Abelard, was castrated for the forbidden love affair with his then-student-later-wife, Héloïse d’Argenteuil.
  4. And here’s an example of how three translators approached a neologism. Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Bangla novel, Harbart, includes the word “memfurti,” which means enjoying foreign women. Jyoti Panjwani, in her 2004 English translation, chose to omit the term altogether. Arunava Sinha, in his 2011 translation, chose “slutfun.” And Sunandini Banerjee, in her 2019 translation, offers us “mem-merry, femme-frothy,” which, as Arka Chattopadhyay writes in his review at Words Without Borders, “alliteratively evokes both the “m” and the “f” sounds present in the Bengali original.”
  5. And this is my favorite neologism origin story because of how many languages and cultures are involved. It starts with a fourteenth-century Persian fairy tale embedded within a narrative poem titled Hasht-Bihisht by the medieval Indian Sufi poet-scholar, Amir Khusrau. The story is based on the life of the Persian King Bahram V, who ruled the Sassanid Empire in the sixth century. In the sixteenth century, the story was published in Italian translation as Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo by Michele Tramezzino. Then, it made its way into other European languages. We know that Voltaire used it for one of his own works, Zadig, in the eighteenth century. And, finally, it arrived in English as The Three Princes of Serendip via a French translation. Serendip was the Persian name for Sri Lanka, but the etymology includes a Sanskrit derivation: the Arab version of the name Sarandib came from Siṃhaladvīpaḥ (Siṃhalaḥ, Sri Lanka + dvīpaḥ, island.) From that English translation, the British writer Horace Walpole coined the word “serendipity” in the mid-eighteenth century. So we have at least six languages, and nearly as many translations before the word became a neologism.

As with all translation work, cultural and linguistic contexts in both source and target languages matter. So does the intended audience or readership.

It’s worth addressing how there are two separate but related processes here: translating an original authorial neologism and creating a, well, new neologism in our own translation.

With authorial neologisms, we have some options for how we might translate:

  • Find a near-equivalent in the target language
  • Transcribe and transliterate
  • Borrow the authorial neologism as is
  • Use the calque
  • Add explanatory or descriptive text (whether inline or as footnotes or glossary, which we’ve discussed before.)
  • Omit entirely (rare)

Alexander Dickow wrote a terrific essay a few years ago in Asymptote Journal about translating a science-fiction novel filled with neologisms, and he concluded as follows:

Translating neologism navigates that gap between maintaining strangeness and novelty, and fitting into a new code, that of the target language. Translating neologism resembles a tiny model of the whole process of translation: like translation in general, the problems neologisms may or may not pose to the translator are unpredictable and non-systematic and require a constant negotiation of difference.

Dickow, Alexander. “Portrait of the Translator as Neologist.” Asymptote Journal, June 12, 2017. https://www.asymptotejournal.com/blog/2017/07/12/portrait-of-the-translator-as-neologist/.

That “constant negotiation of difference” is much harder when you’re working with a) a language that does not have comprehensive, up-to-date dictionaries or etymology documentation; and b) a text that is filled with archaic colloquialisms and regional dialects rarely used today. This is what I’m dealing with for my current translation project. So I’ll need to get more creative to ensure that any neologism I add will be a seamless fit and enhance the cognitive and aesthetic pleasures of the text. Hence all this research and thinking through above.

I’d love to know of translator-created neologisms that you’ve particularly enjoyed (or not, as the case may be.) Or any neologisms, really. Please share in the discussion area below?


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Jenny Bhatt is an author, a literary translator, and a book critic. Currently, she is a Ph.D. student of literature at the University of Texas at Dallas. She has taught creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas and the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship Program. Sign up for her free newsletters, We Are All Translators and/or Historical Fiction Craft Notes. Jenny lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Texas.

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