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A word in the Life: Hapax Legomena in Translation

After some years of working as a translator, you come to notice that, regardless of the type of content you are translating, there are certain words –and combinations of words– that tend to appear over and over again in the source text.

It is understandable that we don’t look back with nostalgia on our thousands of “End User License Agreements,” “Graphical User Interfaces,” and our ad infinitum “For more information…”. These phrases are our equivalent for the dull and repetitive activities an office clerk performs on a daily basis, e.g., stamping documents, data entry and taking orders at a cash register.

But besides these “administrative tasks” which, at the end of month, contribute largely to our bread and butter, our assorted portfolio of clients is prone to spread some spice over our workbench for amusement.

Who hasn’t come across very unusual, complex terminology and hard-to-decipher, intricate phrases? Not to mention those impossible puns with rhyming and rhythm, capable of crippling your productivity. Those are the instances you will remember –if you succeed in coming up with (hopefully) a satisfactory translation result– with the joy of triumph, the ecstasy of overcoming the challenge imposed by Chinese people writing English or wicked copywriting.

If you are even luckier, you might even get yourself a hapax legomenon on your personal translation record.

This term strictly refers to a word which occurs only once in either the written record of a language, the works of an author or in a single text. For example, when reading Shakespeare’s Canon you will encounter the term Honorificabilitudinitatibus, a hapax he himself introduced to the English language.

To stand on firmer ground, I can also point out a very interesting case from a movie script. Right after one of Blade Runner’s final scenes, I was haunted by Roy Batty’s monologue and particularly intrigued by the mention of the unexplained fictional place Tannhäuser Gate. Upon some quick research, I found out that this was actually an instance of hapax legomeno in the film itself, as that location was not present in Dick’s work either.

Now, in terms of individually translated corpora, we could say that hapax legomena are those unique words that only appear once during the working career of a translator.

My personal hapax legomenon

Although I would like to think the contrary, I am convinced that it is highly implausible that I will have to translate “Yoink!” again anytime soon.

Being the long time fan of The Simpsons I am –well, I guess that after they replaced the Mexican Spanish dubbers and ran out of ideas a couple of years ago my love for the series has waned considerably– tears were almost running down my face as I typed “¡Matanga!” in the computer and simultaneously told everyone about it.

True story.

But you should definitely encounter a couple of phrases to cherish every once in a while. For a change.

So, what’s your hapax legomenon in translation? Do you also think Matt Groening should be put out of his misery once and for all?

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