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When borrowed terms can cause a sh*tstorm

What thought crossed your mind when reading the title of this blog post? Were you simply intrigued about the issues borrowed terms can cause for translators or were you more struck by the use of the term sh*tstorm in a professional setting? Perhaps the answer is both.

We are all used to our languages having borrowed terms from other languages. In fact, there are likely some terms you use that you do not even realise have been borrowed from another language. Other times, the use of borrowed terms is more deliberate, as a way of adding a certain je ne sais quoi to your writing. But while some borrowed terms and phrases add a touch of exotic exuberance to your texts, others can cause quite a stir.

Professional Denglish

Even when working in a German-speaking office in a German-speaking country, you are bound to hear some English terms being bandied around. Want to organise a ‘Social-Media-Post’? Then you will have to talk to the ‘Marketing-Abteilung’, and don’t forget to email round to ask everyone to ‘liken und sharen’ once you have posted it. This phenomenon is nothing new. If anything, the trend of using English words in a German-language business context seems more prevalent than ever. But there is something important to remember when translating borrowed terms back into English: mind your language!

Mind your language

Sh*tstorm. Agreed, this is a correct English term that can be found in reputable English-language dictionaries. You will also find it used on the websites of some German-speaking companies and in their sales presentations (albeit with a slightly different meaning), and no one seems to bat an eyelid. These texts go through several vetting processes and this term is still in there at the end, probably because it is now also found in German-language dictionaries. And then the texts are sent for translation.

While swearing has perhaps become more commonplace nowadays and many of us have become desensitised to seeing swear words pop up while we scroll through our social media feeds, would you be taken aback if you saw a swear word used in a professional context? As an English speaker, would ‘sh*tstorm’ stand out to you because you just aren’t used to seeing it in this context or is it actually completely inappropriate?

Using the term sh*tstorm in a professional English-speaking context feels like it would cause more of a sh*tstorm than the topic or issue it was originally used to describe! I certainly remember being quite astounded when I first came across this term being used in a sales presentation for clients, and I can only imagine what the clients would have thought if this had been kept in the English translation! It would certainly have been a risky strategy to keep this term in the presentation. After all, you never know whether a client will find this offensive, which could make your once promising meeting take a very uncomfortable turn indeed. Of course, this is quite an extreme example. There are many terms that are borrowed from other languages that do not contain swear words and run no risk of causing offence, but they do sometimes take on a slightly different meaning in their adoptive language. This can create a real minefield for the translator seeking to put the terms back into the language they originally came from.

Beware taking borrowed terms at face value

A recent example I came across was the term ‘challenger’ in a CV. At first glance, it doesn’t seem too out of place, but then you ask yourself: what does ‘I am a challenger’ actually mean? Do you challenge authority, the status quo, decisions? Or could this be taken as meaning the job candidate is challenging to work with? Or, perhaps even more disconcertingly, do they like to throw down the gauntlet like a medieval knight and challenge their office rival to a duel? Maybe the last option is a little out there, but the question still stands: what does the author actually want to say? It turns out that in this text, the term was being used to describe someone who likes to analyse a concept from all possible sides and act as the devil’s advocate to make sure the path being followed is a sound one. A single English word used in German then had to be translated back into English as a short sentence in order to make sure it encompassed the German text’s true meaning and would not be ambiguous for any potential employers.

Whether a term is borrowed or not, some terms are simply easier to translate than others. The issue with borrowed terms is that you have the added deception of them ‘already being translated’, making them all too easy to gloss over as you translate. While such terms sometimes allow themselves to be seamlessly transferred from one language to another without the need for intervention, it is always worth keeping in mind that if something seems too good to be true, it often is.

Save yourself from faux pas

Quite rightly, professional translators approach borrowed terms with a critical eye, whether they are translating the terms into the language they came from or into a third language. We are aware that these terms might be being used differently to how a native speaker would use them, and we use our experience and eye for detail to spot when we need to step in.

While borrowed terms may pose an additional challenge for translators, choosing to work with highly qualified, experienced translators means you will always get a well-thought-out, natural-sounding translation – even if we have to really think outside the box. Put simply: we are up to the challenge, and we are the best way for you to avoid a sh*tstorm disaster!