Lexical innovation, or retrogression?

« previous post | next post »

I have in my hand a plastic bag that originally contained a CD and instruction manual for a Dell flat-panel display. As usual for such bags, it's printed with icons meant to discourage people from putting it over their head or using it as a baby pillow; and text that reads in English "WARNING: To avoid danger of suffocation, keep away from babies and children. Do not use in cribs, beds, carriages or playpens. This bag is not a toy."

The warning is repeated in French, German, Spanish, and Italian. The Italian one reads:

An Italian friend was taken aback by several aspects of this warning; and especially by the word "soffocazione". The trouble is, he told me, that this word doesn't exist. He doesn't mean that Italians have no way to express the concept of suffocation, just that they use a differently-derived word, namely "soffocamento".

I don't know Italian, but the testimony of wordreference.com's large monolingual Italian dictionary and Italian-English dictionary agrees with my informant in not finding any evidence for the existence of soffocazione. The Hoepli dictionary has an entry, glossed as "Soffocamento" and flagged as "ant.", which I presume stands for "antico" and means that the form is obsolete. The fact that a Google search for soffocazione in Italian-language pages turns up quite a few examples may reflect some persistence of this obsolete form.

On the other hand, there's a common verb soffocare "to suffocate", from which soffocazione might be derived according to the fairly common relationship exemplified by violare/violazione or erogare/erogazione.

So the instance of "soffocazione" on the Dell bag might either come from an over-educated person given to using old-fashioned words (or from the translation lexicon of a computer program filled out with such forms), or from an under-educated person who performed a quasi-regular morphological derivation, and didn't check the results (except perhaps for apparent cognate correspondence to English).

And the same alternatives (along with others) are available to explain the various individual web pages using the word.

Can anyone provide a convincing argument, perhaps based on the rest of the Italian and other translations on the Dell bag, for the etiology of this lexical choice?


  1. xenia said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 12:49 pm

    Your Italian friend is right, of course, and "soffocamento" is the proper word to use in Italian.
    Am not sure why you're so surprised by the error. I can assure you that almost EVERY multi-lingual warning, test, ad, etc., is full of errors, some funnier than others.
    One example: a website decribing the bbeauty of Greece proudly said: "Come take in the beauty of the sunset… […]" in English, but said "Come ADOPT the beauty of the sunset… […]" in Italian. The translation software equated "take in" with "adopt" and … the result was funny.

    [(myl) We're certainly very familiar with curious and/or amusing translation errors, and therefore not at all surprised to see them. The question in this case is how it happened — was it bad MT software? an incompetent human? some combination?]

  2. richard howland-bolton said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

    Can't help on the Italian, but it's interesting that they eschew post punctuation spacing. Is this their house style or have I missed some pointed development

  3. John Cowan said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

    "Antico" in Italian dictionaries seems to mean "archaic" rather than "obsolete".

  4. John Cowan said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 1:04 pm

    In any case, I suspect you have misread the Hoepli entry. It says "soffocazione [sof-fo-ca-zió-ne] ant. o region. soffogazione; ant. suffocazione", which I take to mean that suffocazione is the standard form, with soffogazione being archaic and dialectal, and suffocazione archaic. It may well be an unusual form, but this dictionary at least calls it standard.

    Google Translate agrees, rendering soffocazione as suffocation but leaving the other two forms unchanged.

  5. Marc B. Leavitt said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 1:06 pm

    Dr. Liberman:

    I checked Collins, and the first choice for suffocation is suffocazione; the second is suffocamento. Nouns in Italian follow both forms; French does also; etouffement is primary, suffocation is secondary. The -ment and -tion forms are cognate with English; the -zione and -mento forms in Italian mirror the French endings.

    Marc B. Leavitt

  6. Stomatopodal Pride said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

    I would say that the warning's unfortunate phrasing is most likely due to an uneducated translation. To support this statement:
    – "Soffocazione", while morphologically correct, is an obsolete variation; it is sometimes used in highly technical medical jargon, but otherwise stands out as an eccentric oddity.
    – "tenere via dai neonati e bambini" is a quite terribly written description of a safety measure to express which an almost standardized formula is invariably used. I have never seen anything stating this concept in a manner different from "tenere lontano dalla portata dei bambini", which can be literally translated as "keep out of children's reach". Their version seems a mechanical translation ultimately resulting in an embarassing outcome: "tenere via" (word-by-word translation of "keep away") is not a common phraseological verb, while "dai neonati e bambini" makes an incoherent use of the prepositional article.
    – "non si deve usare…", while correct, is another non-standard formulation.
    – "quadrati di gioco" is not a correct translation for "playpens"; it is intelligible, but requires context-dependent guesswork.

  7. Licia said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 1:19 pm

    I had never heard soffocazione before but it looks like it might be used in some medical contexts; I was surprised to see that also the Ragazzini dictionary lists it as the first choice.

    As for the rest of the text, there are several items that do not conform with standard Italian instructions, such as AVVERTIMENTO! (we expect ATTENZIONE) and tenere via dai neonati e bambini — we expect the collocation tenere lontano dalla portata dei bambini (tenere via, literally “keep away,” is fully understandable but it sounds very informal/uneducated; also, there is no need to specify “newborns” – neonati – as they are included in the bambini category). The impersonal form non si deve usare (“one should not use”) is grammatically correct but we would expect non usare (infinitive, perceived as imperative, the standard form in Italian instructions).

    There are also some unusual lexical items, such as letti (“beds”) instead of lettini (“cots”), carrozzine per bambini (“prams for children”, no need to specify per bambini) and quadrati di gioco, which is meaningless in Italian (it translates back as “play squares”, but the correct Italian word for playpen is the English loanword box!).

    I would say the translation was made by a non-native speaker, maybe some second generation Italian living in the US?

  8. Ellis said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 1:27 pm

    I doubt that 'suffocazione' comes from someone over-educated: it's followed by the absolutely non-Italian 'tenete via [lit. keep away]' rather than 'tenete lontano [lit. keep far]', which would suggest a mechanical translation (although not necessarily a mechanical translator, of course).

    The mysterious presence of 'suffocazione' in reputable dictionaries before 'suffocamento' also suggests an incapable translator or programmer of translators, as does 'borsa [handbag-type bag]' rather than 'busta [plastic bag-type bag]'-

    Harder to explain is 'quadrati di gioco', which neither I nor my native-speaker wife had ever heard before. It would appear to mean 'game area' as in the space in which a game is played, suggesting once again poor dictionary use – WordReference has 'area di gioco' as its second translation for playpen, with the note 'area for playing'; box [dei bambini], which would be the obvious one, comes in third.

  9. arthur said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

    To avoid danger of suffocation, keep away from babies and children.

    This strikes me as an inffective method of avoiding the danger of suffocation.

    Of course, I read the sentence on a screen, not on a plastic bag. Is there a term for linguistic units whose meaning depends on the medium on which they appear?

  10. Chandra said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

    Some of the comments people are making about the Italian translation hold true for the French as well. "Asphyxie" strikes me as more technical or medical-sounding than the usual "suffocation" or "étouffement". And the part about keeping away from babies would normally be phrased as "tenir hors de la portée des enfants". (But then again, I'd say the English is non-standard there, too; normally it would be "keep out of reach of children" rather than "keep away".)

  11. Ray Girvan said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 2:28 pm

    I suppose a rough analogy in English might be "To avoid danger of stifling …" or "To avoid danger of smothering …", that would strike most readers as a bit quaint.

    [(myl) Except that many (?) educated Italians seem never to have heard of "soffocazione", whereas I'd be surprised to encounter educated English-speakers who didn't recognize "stifling" or "smothering" as words.]

  12. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 2:49 pm

    Here's how Google renders the whole warning :

    ATTENZIONE: per evitare rischi di soffocamento, tenere lontano dalla portata dei bambini. Non utilizzare in culle, letti, carrozzine o box. Questa borsa non è un giocattolo.

    Not too bad.

    Indeed. Whoever Dell (or their subcontractor) hired to do the translations, they apparently should have saved the money and used Google Translate.]

  13. Ray Girvan said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 3:46 pm

    @myl: whereas I'd be surprised to encounter educated English-speakers who didn't recognize "stifling" or "smothering"

    True. Are we talking something as weird as – quick skim of OED – querken, smoor, achoke, athrysm, etc in English? But I'd be looking for a bigger sample of speakers. "Suffocazione" gets 15,500 Google Books hits; though admittedly a mix of archaic and niche medical, that doesn't seem so radically rare that educated readers would have commonly failed to encounter it. It even gets a couple of dozen recent news hits.

    [(myl) We have two native speakers asserting that they've never encountered "soffocazione" — my friend, who is a well-read university graduate in computer science, and Licia, whose blog is called "Terminologia etc.". Of course, what we'd see in a larger sample I don't know.]

  14. Rubrick said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 4:41 pm

    I've added at least one word to my English vocabulary via oddly-translated foreign texts, when a Chilean customs form informed me that failure to declare all items might result in my having to pay a mulct.

  15. Shannon said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 7:45 pm

    I actually translate ITA–>ENG for a living. (not the other way around, though). If I want to give the benefit of the doubt to the translator, I would guess that they were tired and/or overworked and took a word that exists in Italian but is not particularly common and translated more literally than is appropriate. This sometimes happens to me and is the reason that whenever possible I double check my translations the day after I finish them. When you are tired and have 15,000 words to translate in two days it sometimes happens that a word that "looks" the same in English and in Italian but isn't really the same ends up translated wrong. For example actually/attualmente (attualmente means currently) or esterno/external (outside would be better).

    BTW, this is an explanation for the soffocamento/soffocazione error. It doesn't explain or justify the "tenete via" error which would make me think that the translator simply isn't a native speaker.

  16. Shannon said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 7:48 pm

    Oh, to add to the survey of college-educated Italians, my boyfriend when asked if he knew the word "soffocazione" responded, "Do you mean soffocamento?".

  17. Bruce said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 8:57 pm

    An Italian friends posits two explanations
    [1] Machine translation. But not Google. It does better than that..
    [2] Translation by an Italian American using the language as passed down through his family through several generations (explains the use of an obsolete word).

    He also points out that "tolo" is not the standard word for "toy" either.
    He suggests the following warning:
    Per evitare rischi di soffocamento, tenere la busta di plastica lontano dalla portata di neonati e bambini. Non va usato nelle carrozzine per bambini o nelle aree dove essi giocano. Questa busta non è un giocattolo.

  18. Marko said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 8:59 pm

    The Hoepli entry for "soffocazione" goes on to state that the word is rare ("non com[une]").

  19. Mark Mandel said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 9:40 pm

    Anyone gonna write to Dell? Their lawyers might be very interested to know they might be considered to have given inadequate warning, should something horrible happen to a French or Italian child.

  20. marie-lucie said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 9:43 pm

    "tolo" is not the standard word for "toy"

    The quotation has giocat tolo instead of giocattolo – "giocat" doesn't mean "toy" (or anything else) either, the break in the middle of the word is a typo.

  21. Kai Samuelsen said,

    March 19, 2011 @ 10:48 am

    It seems to me the English equivalent would be along the lines of "to avoid suffocatizing"; or maybe like the example from the Simpsons: "Just ask this scientician." Morphologically correct, but still manages to fall short of being a real word.

    [(myl) Yes, that seems to be almost exactly right — especially since scientician is actually documented in the OED:

    1885 J. S. Grimes Geonomy 49 in Science 13 Feb. 142/1 The reason why scienticians have neglected to investigate the laws of the currents thoroughly,‥is that [etc.].


  22. army1987 said,

    March 19, 2011 @ 11:32 am

    I pretty strongly suspect that that wasn't written by a native Italian speaker.

  23. Licia C said,

    March 19, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

    [It looks like the spam filter didn't like the comment I entered this morning, I'll try reposting it]

    @Mark Mandel: I have no legal background, but I doubt the current Italian translation could be classified as “inadequate warning”. In an Italian context, there is no need to specify where the plastic bag should NOT be placed, as the relevant information is already provided by the “keep away from children” bit. Italian users do not expect a list and might actually find it quite weird (why those items and not high chairs, pushchairs/strollers etc.?). I believe the text might be better localized for the Italian market by removing the list altogether, which looks very “American” to me.

    Software localization style guides stress the importance of avoiding anything that might affect the user’s experience, however marginally, like the “’how odd!’ moments” prompted by soffocazione or an unusual list. The idea is that although “odd moments” do not affect comprehension, they slow down the reading process and might eventually impact the user’s learning curve.

    I looked for a few examples of translated warnings which work well in Italian (pasted below) and I found an interesting one from Lenovo: Store packing materials safely out of the reach of children to prevent the risk of suffocation from plastic bags was translated as Conservare i materiali d’imballaggio fuori dalla portata dei bambini per evitare il rischio di soffocamento (source). You’ll see that the specific reference to plastic bags was removed, which in my opinion is a good example of localization into Italian:

    1) materiali d’imballaggio (packing materials) makes the reference to plastic bags redundant;
    2) the translator did not have to choose from the various standard Italian words that convey the plastic bag concept. In different parts of Italy a plastic bag, especially the type used for groceries, can be called busta [di plastica], borsa [di plastica], sacchetto [di plastica], sporta [di plastica], sportina and shopper, and there might be additional diatopic variations I am not aware of. Most of them would probably be labelled as standard Italian in dictionaries, and all would be fully understood by any Italian speaker, yet one of two might be perceived as slightly odd in different parts of Italy (I still remember the funny looks a guy from Romagna got when he asked some southern Italian friends for a sportina!), cf also @Ellis’ comment above about borsa (as a native speaker, I found borsa out of place in that context, but not wrong). Using a hyperonym like materiale di imballaggio might be a valid solution in such cases.

    A few additional examples of translated warnings which work fine in Italian (no “odd moments”!):  L’imballo del prodotto può essere pericoloso per i bambini. Rischio di soffocamento. Tenere lontano dalla portata dei bambini (Hisense); Per l'imballaggio della macchina sono stati usati sacchetti di plastica. Per evitare il pericolo di soffocamento, tenere i sacchetti lontano dalla portata dei bambini (Brother); Pericolo di soffocamento! Tenere il materiale di imballaggio lontano dalla portata dei bambini (Gram).

  24. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    March 19, 2011 @ 3:55 pm

    My guess would be that it was simply a person who “spoke Italian”, full stop. The usual expectation among, erm, the general public is that anyone who speaks a language is competent to translate into it. (Which has been discussed on here multiple times.) It may even have been a native speaker, just not a good, competent translator. It simply never occurred to them to think of how “original Italian” warnings like this are phrased.

    I see this kind of thing often enough here in Foreignland. Even some of my colleagues at a university Dep of English will fall prey to false friends of the “soffocazione” kind now and then. Newspapers do it all the time. The web is rife with this sort of thing. All of it from native speakers who simply don’t know any better. And it doesn’t help that e.g. the local localization of Windows XP had its share of really badly phrased Local Foreign modelled on English. (There has been a marked improvement in 7, though. But the vocab and phrasing lives on elsewhere.)

    So, whoever paid for the translation thought writing a couple of sentences for a piece of packaging is a simple task that does not require hiring a good, thus expensive translator. Granted, you might expect a serious company such as Dell to at least have a stock text somewhere for this kind of occasion. After all, they probably use quite a lot of packaging. I have a feeling, though, that every single type of packaging will have a different set of translations for the same English text.

    Sorry. It seems I’m in a rant mood tonight ;) Does this qualify as prescriptivist poppycock? After all, it's just language change induced by contact, innit?

  25. David Marjanović said,

    March 19, 2011 @ 6:36 pm

    I believe the text might be better localized for the Italian market by removing the list altogether, which looks very “American” to me.

    Such lists were introduced in the USA because of frivolous lawsuits that would be much more difficult to win in other jurisdictions. The lists always stand out in translations like the proverbial sore thumb.

  26. maidhc said,

    March 20, 2011 @ 12:21 am

    The warnings are put on for the US market, but a lot of countries have requirements that labelling must be in the local language. In the EU I think it's supposed to be a certain number of EU languages? So they might get into trouble if something was on the bag only in English. Dell doesn't want to stock different bags for different markets, so they translate everything on the bag into every language that is required to be there.

    The warning is not there to meet an Italian requirement for warnings, so they don't really care if it's translated correctly or not. Somebody in the marketing department took two years of Italian in college, and that's good enough.

  27. Riccardo said,

    March 20, 2011 @ 2:18 am

    "Soffocamento" is the more immediately natural word for me, but I would also immediately understand soffocazione. I checked in the three Italian dictionaries I have here at hand. According to Zingarelli 2011, it is given as a "voce dotta" (scholarly term) synonym for soffocamento. My 1971 Devoto Oli, on the other hand, does not label it as archaic or learned, but it gives the two words slightly different meanings in the definition:

    soffocazione: Ostruzione delle capacità respiratorie

    soffocamento: Impedimento delle capacità respiratorie

    The Vocabolario Treccani, on the other hand, not only does not label "soffocazione" as an obsolete or scholarly word – it seems to give preference to it as it refers from soffocamento back to soffocazione:

    soffocaménto (ant. o region. soffogaménto) s. m. [der. di soffocare]. – Il fatto di soffocare o, più spesso, di essere soffocato; soffocazione

    For myself, I have much more of a problem with "quadrato di gioco" for playpen: I had to actually go and read the English to figure out what it was.

  28. adriano said,

    March 20, 2011 @ 5:23 am

    Now and then I'm receiving (like anybody else) spam emails phrased in what might look like Italian to a non native speaker.
    I generally cancel these messages without even thinking: they simply make me angry.
    Come on, you're trying to hook me, and you don't even bother to phrase the scam message in good or decent Italian?

    On a higher level, I think that in terms of good marketing bad translations may backfire, that is, discouraging potential customers from buying.

  29. Tom said,

    March 20, 2011 @ 6:00 am

    I work in a university language department that sends a lot of students on work placements and this is exactly the sort of task that gets given to the work experience kid ("you speak X, translate this…").

    Some of our students are studying to be translators and weeding out this kind of translationese is one of the things we work hard at. (I once had a whole room of students translate 'conducción' (Spanish) as 'conductation' rather than 'driving'. These were native English speakers.) So I would say that it's quite possible that the person who translated this as a native Italian speaker, just not a trained translator.

  30. Simon said,

    March 20, 2011 @ 8:23 am

    Apologies if this has already been touched on elsewhere in the Languagelog, but isn't the (presumably) original english form of the warning flawed? As I read it, it warns me that children and babies are likely to suffocate me and should therefore be avoided.

    Given this starting position its probably not too surprising that one of the translations is a bit off the mark.

  31. marie-lucie said,

    March 20, 2011 @ 10:14 am

    "Keep away from babies and children"

    This is an illustration of the increasing valence ambiguity in English verbs: it means "keep this away" rather than "stay away", but the product on which this sentence is written is not mentioned in any way. The ambiguity resulting from the omission of the direct object sometimes causes problems for the translator who is given only the sentence to be translated, without knowing the context (something which seems to happen frequently).

  32. army1987 said,

    March 20, 2011 @ 3:39 pm

    So I would say that it's quite possible that the person who translated this as a native Italian speaker, just not a trained translator.

    It is. It could be someone who couldn't be bothered to spend a couple of seconds to think about what the Italian for suffocation would be, so they just calqued the English word into an Italian one. I've done this myself in informal contexts, but I wouldn't do that in formal writing, let alone if I were *paid* for the translation. (Compare teoria delle stringhe “string theory”: stringa normally means “shoestring” in Italian, whereas a string of a musical instrument — in analogy to which I think string theory was named — is called corda.)
    On the other hand, other oddnesses like Avvertimento! make me lean towards the non-native-speaker hypothesis.

    (Another peeve of mine is when they translate Caution: hot with Attenzione: caldo, caldo being semantically closer to “warm”. I'd go with scotta, which is what a native Italian speaker would say to warn about that, but I suspect it wouldn't occur to many people to do that in a translation, possibly because scotta is a verb (“it's hot”), unlike hot.)

  33. LDavidH said,

    March 20, 2011 @ 4:29 pm

    When I lived and worked in Albania, it happened again and again: an Albanian would translate an English text into their mother tongue, making lexical and idiomatic mistakes that even I, a foreigner, spotted as soon as I saw the text. All because of a mistaken notion that "translation" means transposing a text "word-for-word" into another language, with no thought for intelligibility or naturalness in the receptor language.

  34. Terminologia etc. » » Quando localizzare = eliminare said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 3:04 am

    […] Il testo italiano sull’involucro di un prodotto DELL, dove si leggono soffocazione e altre traduzioni opinabili, è discusso in Lexical innovation, or retrogression?. […]

  35. michael farris said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 3:47 am

    I might believe it was a native speaker had soffocazione been the only wildly inappropriate choice. But altogether I think the evidence points to a non-native speaker with a dictionary or computer translation or some ungodly combination of the two.

    I'm actually tolerant of the soffocazione example. Not being current with the terminology of translation theory (but being an occasional Polish to English translator) I call it 'triggering' where an item in the source text triggers an automatic association that makes the correct (or at least better) choice much harder to perceive. This happens all the time and IME even the best translators have stories of unofortunate initial lexical choices (most of which get ironed out before the deadline).

    I had an example just the other day when I spent far too long trying to translate a form of witać (to greet) with the English word greet. After a few minutes it dawned on me that the verb I wanted (in that context) was 'to welcome'.

  36. Laura said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 8:50 am

    This has been really enlightening: I started with the (obviously mistaken) impression that it could only have been a non-native speaker, or at best one who had been out of Italy for some time. Now I have even more respect for translators than I already did.
    Not, though, for the translator for a microphone with a warning on it produced by Microsoft:
    Il ne travaux pas avec Vista.
    That looks to me more than anything like a translation (machine, probably, though maybe with dictionary) of the type "how do you say 'works' in French?", with no context provided to indicate if noun or verb was needed.

  37. Michael Tinkler said,

    March 26, 2011 @ 11:07 am

    Hmmm – I'm reading a book on city planning in Rome,* and the form regularly used to describe the overcrowding or overbuilding of some quarters is soffocamento. I had to think about it the first time I came across it, whereas soffocazione would not have given me pause.

    *Isolera, Italo, Roma moderna: Un secolo di storia urbanistica, 1870-1970.

  38. Paolo said,

    March 26, 2011 @ 7:24 pm

    @Michael Tinkler, maybe if you were called Michele Tintinnatore it would be the other way round ;-)

  39. Sara said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 10:50 am

    Hi I'm Italian, the right is soffocamento.. soffocazione or suffocazione don't exist :)

RSS feed for comments on this post