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10 47:1 1021


Fdration Internationale des Traducteurs (FIT)
Revue BabelA.T.


Inconsistency in Technical Terminology:

A Problem for Standardization in Arabic
Mohammad A. T. Saraireh

The purpose of this paper is to investigate a phenomenon that relates to the
confusion created by some translators between stylistic variation and inconsistency with regard to lexical items in English-Arabic translation.
To be able to establish the source of the problem, it is necessary to
identify classes of lexical items as they pertain to translation. Al-Najjar, 1984
(as well as Saraireh, 1990) argues that there are three classes of lexical items
with regard to English-Arabic translation. Class One includes lexical items of
the source language (hereafter, SL) which have equivalents in the target
language (hereafter, TL). Class Two includes lexical items of the SL which
have partial equivalents in the TL (i.e., there are some conceptual differences
between certain SL lexical items and their meanings in the TL). And Class
Three includes lexical items of the SL which do not have equivalents in the
TL. In this case the translator has to resort to one of the techniques of
borrowing to establish a kind of concept-signifier correspondence for technical items. Here we have one of the sources of the many problems for
standardization in Arabic, the numerous suggestions by different institutions
and practitioners in the field. Sometimes variation by using many synonyms
is meant to be stylistic, and thus is deliberate. This problem may be labelled
as inconsistency rather than stylistic variation in technical texts.
In the practice of English-Arabic translation, inconsistency is due to
several factors: First, the lagging behind of Arabic institutions in Arabicizing
the ever-incoming terms, and, if dealt with, the poor circulation of the Arabic
equivalents in proper time and ways (such as textbooks for students at
different levels). Second, the lack of coordination among Arabic Language
Academies in their efforts in dealing with foreign terminology. In reality,

Inconsistency in Technical Terminology


having many such academies contributes to making the problem even worse,
because there is a tendency to legalize inconsistency for users throughout the
Arab World. Third, the wide gap between language planners and language
users. There are many terms approved of by many different language institutions which are rejected by the users simply because language planners do not
consult with the targeted users for acceptability and accuracy of those terms.
In many cases, users come up with better Arabic terms than those suggested
by the so-called language specialists.
Inconsistency may be noticed in a given one work of a certain translator
as well as across many works of several translators and lexicographers. In the
following paragraphs, the phenomenon of inconsistency and how it affects
the process of standardization of Arabic technical terminology is discussed.
It is well known in the field of translation that when a borrowed concept
(Class Three as suggested by Al-Najjar (1984) and Saraireh (1990)) is assigned
a certain signifier in the TL, that kind of association must be emphasized by the
use of that signifier to represent that concept so that the concept-signifier
correspondence is established in that language. Consistency, here, plays a very
important role in establishing and emphasizing that kind of concept-signifier
relationship in the active1 vocabulary of the TL users.
In a survey and analysis of some published English-Arabic translations as
textbooks and other sources (mainly dictionaries), the present researcher has
found evidence that there are many instances in which stylistic variation and
inconsistency in using technical terms are confused. The problem arises and
becomes serious when inconsistency is mistakenly considered as stylistic
variation. Stylistic variation is a very well known literary device to make texts
better by employing synonyms rather than just repeating the same word over
and over in the same sentence or paragraph. Stylistic variation as a rhetorical
device requires the use of different terms for the same referent and it also
involves purposeful verbal avoidance (De Waard & Nida 1986: 94). It,
therefore, bears on synonymy as The lexical items whose senses are identical
in respect of central semantic traits, but differ, if at all, only in respect of what
we may provisionally describe as minor or peripheral traits. (De Waard &
Nida 1986: 94). For Nida (1964: 73) synonymy occurs when there are words
which share several (but not all) essential components and thus can be used to
substitute for one another in some (not all) contexts, e.g. love and like. Along
the same lines, Ulmann (1972: 62) describes synonyms as one sense with
several names. Synonymous terms may pose a problem for translators when


Mohammad A.T. Saraireh

one-to-one correspondence is not possible especially for a newly established

concept-signifier relationship. Illyas (1989:50) argues that
Abundance of synonyms in a language does help the translator in some
ways, for he will have more freedom in selecting the equivalent, yet it can
give him much pain if he is not aware of the slight and acute denotational
and connotational differences between certain synonyms.

However, besides the well-known fact that lexical ambiguity results from
multiplicity of meaning of some lexical items in any text, another source that
this paper sets out to identify stems from using synonyms to signify one
borrowed concept. But the second type of ambiguity is limited to technical
texts. So ambiguity could be a source for writers of literary works and in
political discourse, but it is a problem in technical texts. Therefore, stylistic
variation in technical texts could cause a problem for the recipients to a great
extent, as will be illustrated in the subsequent sections of this paper.
For example, if any of the synonyms (X1, X2, or X3, etc.) of a given
signifier (X) which is assigned to signify a borrowed concept (Y) is used
instead of that signifier (i.e., X), a kind of ambiguity may be created, especially when the signifier (X) and that synonym (X1, X2, or X3, etc.) are
alternately employed in a given translation. In this case, when the translator
uses a synonym (X1, X2, or X3, etc.) to signify the same concept (Y) rather
than the newly assigned lexical item (X), the reader could be confused and
may not be able to follow the progress of the text assuming that there are
different meanings for each synonym. Or the text may communicate a misconception (i.e. the reader gets an idea other than that suggested by the author
of the original text). Therefore, it is difficult to establish any kind of standardization under this kind of synonymy. While the constant use of the signifier
(X) to signify the concept (Y) results in: first, maintaining an unconfusing
translation; and second, reinforcing the relationship between a newly introduced concept and its signifier so that they become established in the language at a relatively short time. Only here does it become possible not only to
achieve standardization but to maintain it in communicative form as well.
The investigation of some translated textbooks and dictionaries indicates
that standardization in Arabic technical texts can be affected by three types of
inconsistency, at least. The distinction between these types is based on the
source of the lexical items employed as illustrated below.
In Type One inconsistency, Arabic synonyms are employed to refer
alternately to a concept that has been introduced in Arabic although that

Inconsistency in Technical Terminology


concept has been exclusively assigned a certain Arabic signifier but not any
of its (i.e., the signifiers) synonyms. Consider these examples:
English Items
1. heavenly bodies

2. serum
3. vaccination
4. radiator3

5. syringe

Arabic Items
b. ?ajr:am
d. jirm
b. masl
b. tati:m
a.1 mia
a.2 mia:
b. mubarrida
a.1 miqana
a.2 miqan
a.3 a:qina
b. ?ibra

falakiyy 2

(Al-Assal, 1998)

As can be seen in the above examples, there is an alternation in the use of

ulwiyy high, sama:wiyy heavenly, and falakiyy4 astronomical although the term sama:wiyy is established in the language. The same also
applies to the two Arabic words for body/bodies, which are ?ajra:m (plural
of jirm) and jism (singular of ?ajsa:m) although the term jirm body and
?ajra:m bodies are established as referring to space natural objects, such as
planets and stars.
With regard to serum, the word masl (lit. serum) is established in Arabic.
Therefore, there is no need for another one such as liqa:h (lit. pollen/sperm),
especially when the two words are used alternately in the same text to
indicate the same concept. The problem extends beyond this point: The word
liqa:h refers exclusively to pollen or sperm, i.e., it has a sexual reference.


Mohammad A.T. Saraireh

The use of liqa:h in this sense could be considered as a metaphor, which is

employed in technical texts to fill in lexical gaps in the target language. This
problem is also manifested in the Arabic signifier for the English word
vaccine as shown in the following paragraph.
For vaccination the problem is even worse. The word talqi:h is basically
employed to mean pollination and impregnation but not vaccination, for
which the word tati:m is designated. Therefore, the translator, even though
a professional one, is not only giving an inaccurate rendering when he uses
tati:m and talqi:h as synonyms to signify the concept of vaccination, but
he is conveying a misconception as well. In other words, the translator is
misleading the reader.
Examples from other different sources can also be given to illustrate the
diffusion of this problem in Arabic.
English Items
1. tocology

2. injection

3. spray

4. extraction

5. bandage

Arabic Items
b. ilmu
b. uqna
b. raa:
b. ?istixla:s
d. xal
b. dima:d
d. lifa:fa


(Al-Assal, 1998)

Inconsistency in Technical Terminology

6. drift
7. grooves
8. harness




the-distribution (distribution set)

(Al-Smadi, 1997)

For a further discussion of this type, let us consider the following renderings
of the word computer:

Arabic Items
1.a a:su:b
calculating device
1.b a:sib
calculating device
2.a rata:ba
2.b nia:ma

It is evident here that the different Arabic renderings are due to different
source languages as an influencing factor for this kind of variation. When the
source language is English, it has at least two renderings: a:sib or a:su:b
(which are derivations from the Arabic root sb to calculate); when the
source language is French, it also has two renderings: rata:ba or nia:ma
(which are derived from the French concept organizer). The first pair is
used in the eastern part of the Arab World, which is mainly influenced by the
English language (the word computer) as a result of the British mandate in
the region; the second pair, in the western part, influenced by the French
language (the word ordinateur) because of the French mandate there. What
makes the problem even worse is not only that there are two different sources
resulting in two tracks of rendition but the formation of more than one lexical
item in each case.
Type Two inconsistency occurs when the translator employs Arabic and
non-Arabic items in the translation (i.e. loan forms and their Arabic equivalents are alternately used) to refer to the same borrowed concept whether in
the same text or in different texts. This type is illustrated by the following

1. telephone
2. radio
3. toxins
4. camera
5. microscope

Mohammad A.T. Saraireh

?a:lat taswi:r

Loan forms
[English text] (Bloom, 1971)
[Arabic text] (Mufti, 1983)

Other examples are like the following:

1. capsule
2. zinc
3. chlorophyll
4. siphon
5. hygrometer
6. dosimeter


Loan forms
(Al-Assal, 1998)

Again, the reader of the translated text may become too sensitive to the use of
synonyms alternately, and he may look for a different meaning for each
synonym in the translation although such sensitivity is not justified in the SL
text. In such a case, the translator employs loan forms and the corresponding
Arabic signifiers to refer to the same concept. The point, here, is that since the
TL has equivalents already established to signify foreign concepts such as
those listed above then, what is the role of loan forms in the translation, and
eventually in the process of standardization? The only justified employment
of a loan form and its native correspondence is when the relationship between
the foreign concept and the native signifier is new to the reader of the TL text.
We should bear in mind that such foreign terms do not exist in bilingual
dictionaries that the reader may consult. This method can also be used when
users of the TL text have been using loan forms for concepts that native
signifiers are newly assigned. For example, and assuming that the English
word microscope has been only recently assigned the native lexical item
mijhar or users in Arabic have been using the loan form mikrosko:b, the
translator can use the loan form when he introduces the item mijhar. However, this practice should stop once the native signifier-concept is established
in the TL and users do not have a problem in assigning the correct relationship between them. But the translator is not justified in alternating the use of

Inconsistency in Technical Terminology


the native signifier and the loan form because this practice could be damaging
to the process of standardization in the TL.
In Type Three inconsistency, different derivations of the same Arabic
word are alternately employed in the TL to refer to the same concept in the
SL, as illustrated in the following examples:
English Items
1. chemical 6

Arabic Items
a. ki:ma:wiyy
b. ki:miyy
c. ki:mya:?iyy

2. chelation

a. ra:bita
b. ra:bita

3. evaporator


4. radiator
5. sedimentation

6. filtration

7. syringe

[English text] (Bloom, 1971)

[Arabic text] )Mufti, 1983)
(Baalbaki, 1967)

(Al-Assal, 1998)

In an attempt to test the accuracy of such translations (i.e., with inconsistency), the reverse translation method was used.7 Some students who were in
a translation course were divided into two groups. One group was asked to
translate into English selected parts with the Arabic items for filtration
(Item 7 in Type Three above). Some students assumed that there were
differences between the four Arabic signifiers; others were puzzled about the
alteration and, trying to maintain differences by giving different English
words and phrases, they provided awkward translations. The other group was
given the same texts but with one Arabic lexical item, namely tari:h, only to
signify the English word filtration. No students gave different English


Mohammad A.T. Saraireh

words for the Arabic word tari:h, nor did any of them get puzzled about the
meaning. This simple, though effective, test shows that synonymy in technical translation is synonymous to inconsistency and, thus, proves harmful.
Without much effort, we can imagine what happens to the reader of such
confusing, though stylistic, texts. This matter is at issue when the readers of
the TL text are learners in their early stages, when they have a tendency to
take the translated text for granted.
In some cases, namely semantic extension, the new meaning (i.e., the
foreign concept) becomes part of the designative meaning of the word that is
chosen (according to some semantic linking) to signify that concept in the
TL. For example, the Arabic word mawja wave is used to signify electromagnetic motion (mawja kahromina:ti:siyya) besides its earlier meanings
(e.g. motion of water surface). The point, here, is that the translator should
make sure which meaning is intended in the SL text, that the matter should
not be left to the readers deduction, as long as this is not aimed at in the SL
text. This caution is emphasized when the text itself is not self-explanatory, in
the sense that which meaning is intended cannot be understood from the
Employing synonyms of any of the three given types in Arabic translation of
technical texts, is harmful because of ambiguity and inconsistency in concept-signifier correspondence. Moreover, such inconsistency goes against the
process of standardization which is vital for creating communicative vocabulary for technical vocabulary in the Arab World.
The text may become ambiguous and, thus, confusing to the reader
although the original one is not. When the translated text becomes ambiguous, it is not only useless but misleading as well. Therefore, the text becomes
unreliable, which could be extended to the translator himself. Moreover, such
practices may lead to psychological noise, a case which may cause the
receptors of the message to reject it altogether.
Under inconsistency the establishment of concept-signifier relationship
in the TL is very much affected. That is, when the reader fails to make a
concept-signifier correspondence, he finds it difficult to follow the progress
of the text. The employment of synonyms forces him to assume wrongly that
there is a different meaning for each synonym. Therefore, the reader cannot

Inconsistency in Technical Terminology


make a one-to-one correspondence between the concept and its signifier in

the TL. In the field of translation (or in semantics in general), there are no
completely synonymous expressions (De Waard & Nida, 1986: 140). Each
one of a set of synonyms (especially native ones, and not loan forms),
although related to the same semantic domain, signifies a concept with some
degree of difference from any of the other synonyms in the same set. In other
words, a synonym describes an object or a concept using features which are
distinct from those understood when another synonym is used. Therefore,
when different synonyms are employed to refer to one concept, the readers
attention is transferred to a different concept each time he encounters a
synonym. This is because the reader is aware that one hundred percent
synonymy does not exist.
The role of the translator is to maintain a factual translation, not a
stylistic one, especially when style is at the cost of the message, thus giving a
distorted, confusing message. I think that the reader is better off with a boring
(by repetition) but accurate text rather than dealing with a stylistic but
confusing translation. Therefore, the translator should aim at a rendering of
the message that is as clear to the receptors in the TL as is the original one to
the readers of the SL text. I would recommend a test to make sure that the
translation is not misleading to the reader.
It could be concluded that inconsistency is not only a pointless variety
of style (Turner, 1976: 76) but can be a harmful one as well. Also, stylistic
variation is a form of inconsistency in scientific text, and therefore it should
be avoided.

As opposed to inactive words which exist in the lexicon of the language but are not used
by users because they are not acceptable.


This example is from Wehr (1976).


The designation of the items mubarrida and dafa:ya actually depends on whether the
English item radiator is part of a cooling system (thus, mubarrida (cooler)) or part of
a heating system (thus, dafa:ya (heater)). So the rendering depends on the function of
the English item. Therefore, it is not as bad as is the case with the other items as long as
the association does not cause a mistranslation.


This word collocates with taqwi:m (i.e., taqwi:m falakiyy) meaning astronomical


Mohammad A.T. Saraireh


This word, as well as other words such as tra:m tram and stu:diyu studio, indicate
phonological language change in the syllable structure of Arabic. It is known that
Arabic does not allow other than word-final consonant clusters (two consonants maximum).


What makes it even worse is that the item in (c) is also used to mean a specialist in
chemistry (It does not mean chemist for which the word saydaliyy (pharmacist) is


This simple test was conducted by the present researcher himself while teaching an MA
level course in translation Technical translation. There were sixteen students in that
class. Each group consisted of eight students. The students did not know that the simple
test was experimental until it was over so as to take the matter seriously. However,
inconsistency was one of the topics for class discussion that day, and the test itself
provided a good illustrative part of our discussion.

Al-Assal, M. 1998. Acceptability and Diffusion of Some Borrowed and Native Terms in
Medical and Engineering Sciences. Unpublished MA thesis, Yarmouk University:
Irbid. xv + 158pp.
Baalbaki, M. 1967 (1995) AL-Mawrid: A Modern English-Arabic Dictionary. 29th ed.,
Dar E-Im Lil-Malayen, Beirut. 1118 pp.
Bloom, B., et al. 1971. Handbook on Formative and Summative Evaluation of Student
Learning. McGraw-Hill Book Company New, York. xiv + 583 pp.
Cruse, D. A. 1986. Lexical Semantics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. xiv +
310 pp.
De Waard, J. & E. Nida. 1986. From One Language to Another: Functional Equivalence
in Bible Translating. Thomas Nelson Publishers. Nashville, Camden, New York. vii +
224 pp.
Illyas, A. 1989. Theories of Translation. Mousel: Mousel University. 166 pp.
Mufti, et al. (translators) 1983. At-Taqwimu Tajmii wa t-Takwinini li-t-Taallum.
McGraw-Hill Book Company New York. xi + 646 pp.
Al-Najjar, M. 1984. Translation as a Correlative of Meaning: Cultural and Linguistic
Transfer between Arabic and English, Unpublished Ph. D. thesis, Indiana University,
Bloomington. 318 pp.
Nida, E. 1964. Toward a Science of Translation with Special Reference to Principles and
Procedures involved in Bible Translating. Leiden. x + 331 pp.
Saraireh, M. 1990. Some Lexical and Syntactic Problems in English-Arabic Translation.
Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, The University of Wisconsin-Madison. xii + 327 pp.
Al-Smadi, M. 1997. Language Planning and Arabicization of Military Terms. Unpublished MA thesis, Yarmouk University. vii + 86 pp.
Turner, 1976. A Grammar of New Testament Greek. Vol. 4: Style. Edinborough: T. & T.
Clark. pp. 65-81
Ullmann, S. 1972. Semantics: An Introduction to the Science of Meaning. Oxford: Basil
Blackwell. 278 pp.

Inconsistency in Technical Terminology


About the Author

MOHAMMAD A. SARAIREH is a professor of linguistics and translation at Yarmuk
University, Irbid, Jordan. His interests include research on translation, phonology, syntax,
applied linguistics and computational linguistics. He has published several papers in these
fields and co-edited two books on translation issues (one in Arabic and the second in
English). Now he is working on computerised Arabic phonology and processes that
improve or distort the message in translation.
Address: P.O. Box 4645 Yarmouk University, Irbid -21163 Jordan

Standardization is one of the basic elements of technical translation for proper communication among the users of the target language text. Consistency in signifier-signified
correspondence is vital to maintain proper standardization. However, there are many
instances (in translation) in which stylistic variation and inconsistency in using lexical
items are confused. The problem arises and becomes serious when inconsistency is
mistakenly considered as stylistic variation. Stylistic variation is a very well known
literary device to avoid repetition in texts by employing synonyms. Inconsistency arises
when a signifier which has been employed in the target language to signify a new borrowed
concept is alternately used with any of its synonyms. The translator may create a kind of
confusion when he uses a synonym to signify the same concept rather than the assigned
lexical item. Therefore, the reader may not be able to follow the progress of the text
assuming that there is a different meaning for each synonym. The purpose of this paper is
to investigate the different types of this phenomenon in English-Arabic translation.

La standardisation est un des lments de base de la traduction technique pour quune
communication adquate entre les utilisateurs du texte dans la langue cible soit assure.
La cohrence dans la relation entre le signifiant et le signifi est essentielle pour permettre
une standardisation correcte.
Il existe, cependant, plusieurs exemples (en traduction) dans lesquelles une confusion apparat entre la variation stylistique et lincohrence dans lusage de lexmes. La
variation stylistique est un moyen littraire bien connu pour viter les rptitions dans les
textes en faisant appel aux synonymes. Lincohrence sinstalle lorsquun signifi qui a
t utilis dans la langue cible pour rendre le sens dun nouveau concept emprunt est
utilise en alternative avec dautres de ces synonymes.
Le traducteur peut crer une certaine confusion lorsquil utilise un synonyme pour
signifier le mme concept plutt que le lexme consacr. Ds lors le lecteur peut ne plus
tre en mesure de suivre la progression du texte, car il suppose quil existe une signification diffrente pour chaque synonyme.
Lobjet de cet article est dexaminer les types diffrents de ce phnomne dans la
traduction de la langue anglaise vers la langue arabe.