Q&A: Why might a translator use a calque?

[A2A] One would use a calque (a.k.a. loan translation) when there is no equivalent word or expression in the target language, but it captures the meaning so well and concisely that it is recreated in the target language by emulating the same word combination with native words.

In Hebrew, noted examples are:

  • kaduregel | כדורגל – a fusion of kadur (ball) and regel (foot, leg) = football.
  • yeraḥ-dvash | ירח-דבש – from yeraḥ (moon of), dvash (honey) = honeymoon
  • gan-yeladim | גן-ילדים – from gan (garden), yeladim (children) = kindergarten
  • ma nishma | מה נשמע – lit. ‘What shall we hear?’ from the Yiddish Wass hert zich?, meaning ‘How are you?’ or ‘How’s it going?’

As a young man in London, as a joke, I pioneered several such loan translations in Hebrew among my Israeli friends, such as:

  • linsoa baShfoforet / baMaḥteret | לנסוע בשפופרת/במחתרת = travel by Tube / Underground
  • Qirqas Oxford | קרקס אוקספורד = Oxford Circus
  • Zeh lo kos hatéh sheli | זה לא כוס התה שלי = It’s not my cup of tea (i.e., I’m not into that).

More recently, I’ve introduced new, more serious ones, to provide lacking terms in Hebrew, such as:

  • Moav (מוא”ב = מיטה וארוחת-בוקר) = Bed-&-Breakfast
  • Barmaḥ (ברמ”ח = ברירת-מחדל) = default [option]*
  • Na’eh (נא”ה = נא אשרו השתתפותכם) = RSVP
  • Lehasden (להסדן) = to reverse-engineer

The problem arises when such literal translations are done without understanding the true meaning of the original expression—resulting in an obscure, or misleading expression in the target language, and thoroughly mystifying the intended readership. In Hebrew, examples that I’ve come across as an academic translator just in the past year or two, include:**

  • trade-off, translated as יחסי-חליפין
  • reproduction, translated as ייצור מחדש
  • double-edge, translated as כפול-קצוות
  • twilight zone, translated as המרחב המעומעם

You may come across similar misguided calques in other languages.


*The double-barrelled term already exists, but this contraction allows it to be used as an adjective, as well (e.g. ‘ha-optziah habarmaḥit’ = ‘the default option’).

**For more examples, see המרחב המעומעם כפול קצוות


2 thoughts on “Q&A: Why might a translator use a calque?

  1. Pingback: Q&A: Why might a translator use a calque? — Notes by Autumn Light | Talmidimblogging

  2. That’s so interesting, Jonathan. I’m not a good enough speaker to completely understand why the four examples at the end are confusing, but I get the general idea. They lack the connotative meaning of the original terms. Re-creation is not the same as reproduction, in example two. Really fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

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