Of the five following languages, which one has the most native speakers?
Chinese (Mandarin) has 1.2 billion native speakers
Spanish comes in second with 400 million native speakers
English comes in third with 360 million native speakers
Hindi ranks number 4 with about 330 million native speakers, but it’s complicated
Arabic comes in last, but like Hindi, it’s also complicated
The above figures are estimates and the numbers while close, are always changing. To add to the confusion, languages such as Hindi and Arabic can have such dramatic variations, that people who speak what they consider to be the same language are often not able to fully understand each other. Here we are talking about “native” speakers. If we consider people who speak an additional language, the numbers change significantly. For example, the total number of people who speak English fluently (not necessarily native) increases to more than half a billion, thanks to English being at the forefront of global business relationships.
Which language has the most words?
Most scholars would agree that English has the most words. However this can be quite tricky to calculate. English comes out on top because it borrows many of its words from the Germanic and Latin languages. It is also constantly creating new words with its emphasis on science, medical and technical inventions. The problem we encounter is, what constitutes a word? And if a single word has more than one meaning should this be considered two words or more? Let’s take the word ‘bear’ for example. Here are a few of its possible meanings.
*I couldn’t bear to see that movie again.
*She will get married and bear a child.
*A bear was spotted behind my neighbor’s house.
*The walls were not strong enough to bear the weight of the roof.
*Next year that tree will bear fruit.
*His excuse doesn’t bear close examination.
*I’m not going to bear the blame.
*That statement doesn’t bear repeating.
*Bear to the left or the boat will hit the buoy.
So what happens in the translation process when there is a word in English with no corresponding word in the target language? This takes us to the topic of: “transcreation”.
As currently understood and used, transcreation deals primarily with articles and copy written for the advertising industry. It is used to create an understanding of the meaning of the message and not simply a translation of the individual words. Let’s look at some common business slogans that word for word have little meaning in a foreign language, without being transcreated into a slogan that would reflect the meaning in that other language. I will give examples of “transcreation” in the world of advertising in the forthcoming blog.
Case Study – A Word is Born
Well, it wasn’t actually born the way puppies or fish or birds are born, but rather invented, or just plain made up.
In 1947 John Robinson Pierce, while working for Bell Telephone Laboratories, invented an electronic device he named a “transistor”. It replaced many of the functions of vacuum tubes, which back in the day were commonly used in radios. The device transfers an electrical current across a resistor, hence the term transfer + resistor, shortened to transistor. When you go to a global translation website today to find out what this word is called in different languages you’ll find that the following languages adopted the word without changing the spelling:
Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Italian, Portuguese, Danish, Swedish, Turkish, Catalan, Czech, Romanian, Estonian, Filipino, Hawaiian, Hmong, Malay, Norwegian, Scots Gaelic, Somali, Sudanese and Welsh.
Other countries have incorporated the same word, but changed the spelling slightly to conform to their specific pronunciation.
Croatian = transistor
Slovak = tranzistor
Finnish = transistori
Hungarian = tranzisztor
Polish = tranzystor
Romanian = transistor
I didn’t include the character-based languages such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc. because they use phonetic symbols to express the sound of the spoken word.
Since the beginning of human time, families, tribes, villages and countries have created words to define their world, express their feelings, thoughts and ideas. With the advent of the internet, jet travel and international business, the interchange of languages is growing and changing at a rate faster than any other time in history.
So what does this matter to us as translation industry professionals? There’s a couple key takeaways from the concept of transcreation and how it relates to our business. First and foremost, transcreation renders computer translations unusable. This is why here at TSI, we never use computer translation applications in the process of our work. Second, it shows the importance of hiring the right translator for the job. For example, when dealing with transcreated words relating to a specific industry, it’s essential to match that project with a native translator well versed in the lingo or jargon pertaining to said industry.
Because of our close to 30 years of experience working with very niche markets, our team of translators is ready to handle language subtleties with ease. If you have a need for translation of documents that are unique, don’t worry- we can handle them at TSI. There’s numerous ways to contact us for an estimate.
Francis Semmens is the founder of TSI and author of all blog posts with a focus on translation for clients and translators alike.