Take a look at the following list of terms (they all appear in Warzone 2100): railgun, coilgun, heat signature, turbo-charged engine, and TCP. How would you translate these terms? More generally, what do you do when you meet a scientific or technical term that was not originally conceived in your native language? Obviously, you have two options. The first one is to look it up in a specialized dictionary. But what if you did not find it? Then comes the second option: Translate it yourself, taking advantage of the methods that suits your language. However, I am going to argue that for Arabic, both options will not do the trick in many cases, to the degree that you might be better of leaving all terms untranslated.

Here is my argument: Today’s concepts are highly complex, therefore one-, two-, or three-word names are rarely able to explain them. When players face a new term, they will try to look it up somewhere to find an explanation of it (the internet in all likelihood). But in case there is no resources whatever that defines it, will it matter then what the term was? This the one of the major problems that Arabic suffers from: The Arabic content on the internet is so small and of poor quality, that the chance of finding an description of something is very slim. So, what should you do?

Before carrying on with our discussion, please note that I am not addressing translators who are creating specialized dictionaries. That is, I assume that you are not translating terms so that other people can use them in their works or products. In this case will probably be the first one to translate the names of many new concepts, and it is reasonable to expect that no one has written about them before in your target language. My advice is given to those working with end products, particularly games. Additionally, we should agree that most Arabic players do not speak English, since otherwise we would not be translating the game in the first place.

Why terminology is not very important

From my experience, when faced with new terms, Arabic translators take great pains to find or craft the “perfect” translation, which means different things for different people. However, I propose that when choosing a translation, you should focus the content, not how good it is.

Here is a fact: no one care about the names objects, concepts, etc. Names are just arbitrary collection of letters (or a series of sounds, depending on how you want to look at them). The ultimate goal of names is not to explain what the function of objects (Although this could be a nice addition), but simply to facilitate communications.

To avoid straying too much into philosophy of language, let us look at a simple example from English. Take the word “door”. Where does “door” come from? Wiktionary traces its origin to Proto-Indo-European, but who cares for real? It could have been “foor”, “zoor”, or “toor”, and no child would complain when they learn it for the first time. Hence, we can conclude that meaningless name are perfectly fine.

Now lets look at an example from the other end of the spectrum. Take the word “computer”. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it dates back to 1600s, and used to refer to people who carried out computations, and by 1897, it began to mean calculating machines. Today, we use this word almost daily, but saying it does not bring to anyone’s mind the meaning of “compute”. It became almost meaningless and for a good reason. The computer is too complex a machine to be reduced to one word. Meaningful names are only useful for simple objects and concepts, like “cutter”, “speaker”, “mixer”, and so on.

Why content is everything

Do not get me wrong – I am not suggesting inventing a new utterance for every concept or object. On the contrary, meaningful names are desirable, and if you are creating a dictionary or a reference glossary, you should think about whether your translations are ‘good’ or not and choose them carefully. This is because the function of these references is radically different from that of games. In games, you aim to entertain the player, and to help them understand the game’s world, and the truth of the matter is that no one will probably reuse your translations. With glossaries, on the other hand, you aim first and foremost to create translations that will hopefully gain acceptance by the specialists.

Whenever I chose a translation for a specialized term in a game, I ask myself this: How many Arabic books, articles, videos cover the concept using the suggested translation. Simply speaking, a translation is useless if no one is using it. Therefore, if you found a translation in a specialized dictionary, do a simple research and see whether the it is indeed in use, by the experts at least. If not, then avoid spending too much time on inventing a new one, and save your energy for something else. When researching content, your focus should be on the internet, since today it is people’s main source of information and knowledge.

But why should you not rely on the internet to explain anything in the case of Arabic? Because the Arabic content on the internet is in a terrible state. I will not give review of this topic, but let us take Wikipedia as an example. Swedish is spoken by 10 million people, while Arabic has at least 300 million native speakers. Yet in 2014, according to these statistics, the Swedish Wikipedia was about 450 million words, while the Arabic version had a mere 119 million. This is just a natural reflection of how uneducated and scientifically illiterate the majority of Arabs are, and of an Arab World troubled plagued by poverty, wars, and corruption.

And besides the small quantity, the quality is so low. A large percentage of written or video materials is either about religion or news. Copyright laws are not enforced, and copy-pasting is so widespread, it is very probable that you read the same article on several different websites. Even articles that deals with topics such as art and science usually suffers from major structural and research problems.

What to do then?

As you can see, the problem is not how to translate terminology; it is where the player can learn the meaning of the terms. My strategy is to define and explain whenever I can, always assuming that the player has no where to find info. Dedicating a few more sentences to explain the different kinds of weapons in, for instance, will not hurt anybody, and will in fact contribute to increasing the Arabic content. Obviously, not everything needs to be explained, and this why being a gamer yourself is absolutely necessary, so you can get an idea of what concepts are familiar to the players, and what are not.

Additionally, I find nothing wrong with mentioning the English source when possible. This not out of dissatisfaction with my translations. Instead, my goal is to broadens the players knowledge. Even though we assumed that Arabs do not speak English for the sake of the argument, in reality they know and use so many English words, and have no problem learning new ones.
So what do you think? How do you handle terminology in your own translations?


Featured photo by Ayrat.

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