Neologisms and the evolution of language

I have a huge appreciation of TED talks, which enable us laymen and laywomen to learn more about specialized and often inaccessible areas of expertise, knowledge and innovation. I recently watched a very interesting and particularly entertaining TED talk by lexicographer Erin McKean on the creation of new words and the evolution of language over time. She encourages the audience to coin new words when existing language proves inadequate. As McKean explains, “every language is just a group of people who agree to understand each other”, which I think is a fantastically simple way to explain the complex and cultural phenomenon of language.

The subject of my Masters thesis was the various ways in which twenty-first century translators have dealt with the poetic elements of Dante’s Inferno. One such element of the Divina Commedia is Dante’s many neologisms, including ‘trasumanar‘ [to pass beyond the human] and ‘contrapasso’ [the system whereby each sinner is subject to a suitable punishment]. I remain fascinated by the way in which some of these new words were born, evolved and eventually became established as a standard component of the vernacular Italian language. The same can be said of Shakespeare’s plentiful and well-documented contributions to the English language, including ‘bedazzled’, ‘distasteful’, ‘laughable’ and ‘shooting star’.

Within the context of translation, neologisms are an unusual and tricky challenge. However, what could be more rewarding or creative than attempting to coin a neologism based on the linguistic leap of your author in the source language? Indeed, this challenge may be the reason that many new words are transplanted, unchanged and untranslated, into other languages.

To you translators out there, have you ever been faced with a new word during a translation project? How did you deal with the challenge?

— Zosia

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