Romanian Cookies and Other Technical Matters

By Persida Drulea

Look for technical words like host, cookie, or benchmarking in an English-Romanian dictionary and you’ll have a hard time finding a one-word equivalent. Fortunately, there are various approaches toward a solution.

To solve this dilemma, some of us (including translators) simply open the door and let in foreign words without checking whether an equivalent already exists in the original language or wondering how crudely a word taken from a Germanic language like English would blend into a highly inflected Romance language like Romanian. Is it a case of emergency adoption, usage first and linguistic elegance later? Snobbery? Or, simply, survival of the fittest?

Whatever the case, Romanian is yet another language that has rushed headlong into this often unjustified use of Anglicisms through its own mass media and yes, oftentimes through translators, to the expansion of a global monoculture dominated by English. Such words enter the gate left open and soon stick out stridently as hybrids hard to understand by natives not familiar with English.

The 1989 revolution in Romania demolished not only the totalitarian regime with its wooden jargon, but also the wall that seemed to protect the Romanian language, allowing it to remain true to itself and resourceful. At first the linguistic border became porous, but soon these holes opened wider and an immediate invasion of mostly English terms followed; not an unexpected or necessarily negative phenomenon in itself but one that caught us translators by some surprise.

Romanian translators are increasingly required to translate specialized material from English and are painfully finding out that Romanian vocabulary is not always equipped with consecrated terms for concepts basically not yet or still being introduced to the local culture: branding, benchmarking, Total Quality Management, nation building, and more.

How can we as translators help preserve national language (and eventually cultural) integrity without paranoia or becoming the language police? It’s going to take some subtle but deliberate effort—still an imperfect process of discerning, and brainstorming among ourselves online, but ultimately deciding individually. What are we to do?

One first step toward finding a solution would be to distinguish between legitimate “neologisms” and rough “barbarisms.”

In the context of social and scientific changes so rapidly occurring today in the world, in many instances the adoption of neologisms (foreign words adopted in cases where there is not any exact equivalent in the adoptive language) is legitimate and certainly one of the phenomena that keeps a language fresh and alive. Neologisms have been and are being adopted, generally, according to a well-defined model. In the absence of a Romanian word for a certain concept, a foreign word is adopted to fill that need; through natural rather than forced assimilation, the new word follows the adoptive language rules of inflection and eventually blends elegantly into the morphological and syntactic picture.

Take, for instance, the word match (game): it was adopted from English, a Germanic language, into a Romance language. Through natural (and rather clever) assimilation, it maintained its original English pronunciation [meci] but adapted its spelling to that of a phonetic language like Romanian—this way the word could be inflected in the normal Romanian way, as a noun of neutral gender: un meci/ două meciuri (a match/two matches); meci/meciul (match/the match). Rules of inflection have been preserved, no variance treatment was awarded, the adoption process was generally smooth.

I agree with adoption of foreign words in fields where, for instance, there is a technological delay between two cultures/languages. Technology escalates so quickly that, practically speaking, there isn’t always enough time to design autochthonous jargon for new terms; in its need to survive on the world market, a country lagging behind technologically will adopt a foreign technology together with its specific terminology.

As opposed to neologisms, a “barbarism” is a foreign word introduced even though there is already an autochthonous word with the same connotation (for example, site instead of the Romanian sit; link instead of legătură; review instead of recenzie; or poll instead of sondaj de opinie). When these words are adopted, some Romanian morphologic rules have to be bent and language integrity suffers. It is somewhat suggestive of a virus that can run havoc with your computer rules and settings.

Without adapting to the phonetic character of Romanian, these barbarisms maintain their lexical form and pronunciation; for example, the word thread, as used in discussion forums on the Internet, instead of the Romanian fir, which has the same connotation. Fir can be articulated in the usual way with the suffix –ul (for singular) or -ele (for plural) (firul/firele); thread, on the other hand, cannot obey the same rules of articulation without some adjustments: thread-ul/thread-urile; while the use of hyphenation in this case mitigates somewhat the intrusion, pronunciation is incompatible with the phonetic writing, the rules of inflection are altered, hybridization occurs and soon, Romanian sounds like a broken language. What’s wrong with distribuţie instead of casting, or tendinţă instead of trend?

If informal conversation may be more tolerant of such linguistic combinations, literary language would clearly reject them.

As translators, we are responsible for holding language up to high standards rather than merely going with the flow and discarding perfectly good old Romanian (enter your own language) equivalents.

When it comes to adopting foreign words, then, let’s not be purists at any price but instead use linguistic common sense. If we already have it, let’s—as the saying goes—use it or lose it.

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