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 one is moved to recreate it by emulating the same word combination using native words in the target language.

In Hebrew, noted examples are:

  • kaduregel – a fusion of kadur (ball) and regel (foot, leg) = football.
  • yeraḥ-dvash – from yeraḥ (moon of), dvash (honey) = honeymoon
  • gan-yeladim – from gan (garden), yeladim (children) = kindergarten
  • ma nishma – 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 = travel by Tube / Underground
  • Qirqas Oxford = Oxford Circus
  • Zeh lo kos hatéh sheli = 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 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


1 thought 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

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