I had a problem recently with the term "mule". Within the context of drug trafficking, a mule is a person who carries drugs in her or his body across frontiers. In French, the term "passeur" or "passeuse" can be used with the same meaning. However, it seemed to me that this was a term more likely to be used by the police, whereas in my example it was a drug dealer speaking. The tone wasn’t right. Besides, I like "mule". The same word exists in French to describe the same animal and, like mules are made to carry enormous loads under a lot of physical stress, the drug carriers are made to carry loads that are certainly lighter physically, but incredibly heavy mentally and emotionally.
So I chose to borrow "mule" because it allowed me to stay faithful to the language register and to the characters. Besides, it wasn’t a huge risk in terms of the reader understanding what was going on, as it is used in French, although not as widely as "passeur". The situation was also extremely clear, so even if the reader hadn’t heard the word before, she would have no problem inferring its meaning.
Borrowing is a translation technique: the translator makes a conscious choice to use the same word in the target text as it is found in the source text. This is particularly the case when there is no equivalent term in the target language. It also allows the translator to put a text clearly within a particular cultural context through the register of the vocabulary she uses. Certain terms allow people belonging to communities of similar interests to transcend linguistic boundaries. Despite using different linguistic systems, they share the same reality and the same code to decipher it. Depending on where this code was created, some words will have a lot more prestige than others in a certain context.
For example, no self-respecting French techno music enthusiast will use anything but "rave" to describe, well, a rave. In the same way, English cookery programs are peppered with French words. This leads to interesting linguistic developments, like for example the coining of "after" in French: an "after" is a rave after the rave, for the die-hards who still haven’t had enough. This false Anglicism was certainly created because, so many terms related to the techno world being borrowings from the English language, a French word might have been out of place, almost "foreign" to this particular code.
So in this kind of situation, the linguistic and cultural context becomes central and heavily influences the decisions made by the translator.
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February 23
Since writing this entry, I’ve come across several examples of borrowing; I might add here the most interesting ones.
Le turnover (taux de départ des salariés). This is an odd one: a borrowing followed by its translation between brackets. Why not just use the French equivalent? In this case, I think that the reason is that "management speak" is developed by the big gurus of that sector, most of them American, and their jargon is adopted by speakers of other languages. So in this article, the journalist was only using the terminology that is widely used in the context she was analysing (I found it in an article on the delocalisation of services). As she knew her readers might not be familiar with that world, she put the translation between brackets.