If the cognate fits, wear it!

Post date: Oct 17, 2013 5:31:48 PM

Nothing annoys me more (OK, lots of things annoy me more, but I haven't got time for that now) than translators deliberately avoiding cognates, where a cognate would be the right choice. It's known (in my head) as "cognate avoidance".

In a translation about fire protection that I checked recently, the Dutch word "zone" was translated as "area", when the obvious (and technically correct) translation in that context would have been "zone". This may seem like a banal and innocuous example, but it's a serious issue: at age 16, when we were translating at school, we were encouraged to avoid cognates to show the examiner that we were making an effort, rather than taking the easy way out, and that we had an extensive vocabulary. This is NOT APPROPRIATE for professional commercial/technical translation, where the correct choice of word - whether or not it is a cognate - is essential for an accurate translation that meets the customer's brief, irrespective of what your old teacher is telling you inside your head.

I have come across hundreds more examples, mainly from technical translations, all of which are guaranteed to drive me up the wall (all the examples that follow are from French-English translations): "shape" instead of "geometry" for "géometrie", "stage" instead of "phase" for "phase", "taken in" instead of "absorbed" for "absorbé"... I could go on.

In all of these cases, the cognate was quite simply the correct translation, given the context, for a term that has a specific technical meaning, and just happens to look the same in the source language (French in this case) and the target language (English in my case). If the term "phase" appears in a French text about, say, transformers, we should think VERY HARD before translating it as anything other than "phase" (again, depending on the context). You would be surprised how many times this happens, possibly unconsciously, as the translator relives the awful feeling of Brother O'Boyle hitting them on the back of the head with the chalk duster for using a cognate... sorry, forgot where I was for a moment there.

Churning out faux amis isn't the solution either, of course: it goes without saying that a cognate should not necessarily be used every time it is available as an option - "géometrie" won't always be "geometry", "dérogation" is not "derogation", and "également", meaning also or additionally, doesn't mean "equally".

The other side of the coin (and actually part of the same problem) is that translators with a poor grasp of the subject matter, and in a hurry due to low rates of pay, often slavishly (and incorrectly) use cognates just to get by. So cognate avoidance can indicate an attempt by the translator to show the customer that they understand the subject matter - back to Brother O'Boyle again!

The point is that professional translators should be operating at a level way, way above cognate avoidance. Just choose the correct term: you're not trying to pass an 'O' level exam!*

*Apologies for those of you who are not old enough to remember 'O' levels. They were like GCSEs, only harder. For those of you who don't know, GCSEs are the exams taken in many parts of the UK at age 16, the age at which it used to be possible to leave school.