What Is a Loan Translation or Calque?

Definition and Examples

A loan translation is a compound in English (for example, superman) that literally translates a foreign expression (in this example, German Übermensch), word for word. Also known as a calque (from the French word for "copy").

A loan translation is a special kind of loan word. However, says Yousef Bader, "loan translations are easier to understand [than loan words] because they use existing elements in the borrowing language, whose expressive capacity is thereby enriched" (in Language, Discourse, and Translation in the West and Middle East, 1994).

It goes without saying (ça va sans dire) that English gets most of its loan translations from French.

Examples and Observations

  • "Vocabulary borrowing from one language into another is a common phenomenon. Sometimes in the case of structurally complex lexical items, this takes the form of loan translation. In such a translation, the literal form of a lexical item is translated bit by bit into another language. It can take place with derived words. The word thriness (threeness) in Old English was loan translated from Latin trinitas during the conversion of the English to Christianity. Compound words can also be loan translated. Current English contains two translations of a German compound noun which show the process clearly. The German word Leberwurst appears half loan translated in liverwurst and completely loan translated in liversausage."
    (Koenraad Kuiper and Daphne Tan Gek Lin, "Cultural Congruence and Conflict in the Acquisition of Formulae in a Second Language." English Across Cultures, Cultures Across English: A Reader in Cross-Cultural Communication, ed. by  Ofelia García and Ricardo Otheguy. Mouten de Gruyter, 1989)
  • "A less well-known form of borrowing involves translations of loan words, such that calques (lit., 'copies') are produced: the English 'skyscraper' becomes wolkenkratzer (lit., cloud scraper) in German or gratte-ciel (lit., sky scraper) in French; the French marché aux puces is taken into English as 'flea market.'"
    (John Edwards, Sociolinguistics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2013)

    French, German, and Spanish Calque

    • - "When we borrowed the French word decalcomanie as decalcomania (and later shortened it to decal; the original French word, itself a compound, contains the morpheme calque), we simply took it over in one piece and naturalized it by means of an English pronunciation. But when we took over the German word Lehnwort we actually translated its two morphemes into English and loanword resulted. In early English, especially before the Norman Conquest, borrowings were far less common than today, and calques far more so. . . .

      - "The verb bad mouth . . . is a calque or loan translation: it seems to come from Vai* day ngatmay (a curse; literally, 'a bad mouth'). . . .

      "New World Spanish has composed a number of loan translations or calques on English models, such as luna de miel (honeymoon), perros calientes (hot dogs), and conferencia de alto nivel (high level conference)."
      (W.F. Bolton, A Living Language: The History and Structure of English. Random House, 1982)

      *The Vai language is spoken by the Vai people of Liberia and Sierra Leone.

    Water of Life

    • "Whiskey is 'water of life,' etymologically speaking. The term is short for whiskybae, which is another spelling of usquebaugh, from Gaelic uiscebeatha, meaning 'water of life.' In Scotland and Ireland, whisky/whiskey is still called usquebaugh.
    • "This is a loan translation from Latin aqua vitae, literally 'water of life.' A dry spirit from Scandinavia is called aquavit. Russian vodka is water, too, from Russian voda (water). Finally, there's firewater, a literal translation of Ojibwa (an Algonquin language) ishkodewaaboo." (Anu Garg, The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two. Plume, 2007)