Using Glossaries for Sinhala Translation Projects

Sinhala, the most commonly spoken language in Sri Lanka, is known for being descriptive. Although it is rich in vocabulary, the majority of these words are only used in written material, and they are losing their place in modern literature at that. Nevertheless, new words are added frequently, even though most of them are transliterations instead of creative derivatives.

Within these surroundings, linguists and writers compose short descriptive phrases, instead of searching and using a single term. This makes for understandable texts but, to some extent, also makes variations of the actual meaning.

When it comes to professional translations, this practice cannot be permitted. Therefore, a comprehensive glossary is necessary if the translation (and often, website localization) project is a large one.

A glossary will help maintain consistency in your translation work, as well as accuracy. A few important linguistic issues should be taken into consideration when creating and adding to a glossary:

  • Nearly all nouns and verbs in Sinhala are inflected, meaning that Sinhala is an inflecting language. Similar to Pali and Sanskrit, Sinhala has a complex inflection system. Excluding prepositions (or, rather, postpositions in Sinhala) and prefixes, all words carry inflections. Nouns are created by conjoining a sound + a suffix, or suffixes. Multiple suffixes would call for multiple inflections. Furthermore, suffixes are available, in both optional and non-optional forms. An attempt at automated translation would be interesting to read, but contextual suitability of an inflected term cannot judged by an electronic processor.
  • Gender differences are also particular, as there are three genders for words in Sinhala (feminine, masculine, and neutral). Therefore, for a word like ‘defender,’ one could expect a few dozen inflections, at least. Some words can only correspond to one gender, theoretically limiting them to 18 different inflections.
  • Verbs are created by conjoining the verb element + suffix, or suffixes. Again, these depict singular and plural differences, and can be assigned any of the three genders. There are only 18 different verbs in Sinhala.
  • Adjectives and adverbs work differently than above, although a set of modifiers creates different forms of each.

Nowadays, there are usually terms like brand names, trade names, slogans, acronyms, URLs, and email addresses embedded in the source text. Some clients prefer transliterations instead of the original terms, although transliterations might be spelled differently, depending on the translator. Acronyms cannot be translated successfully, and must be kept as they are in the source language text. URLs and email addresses, as with any other language, cannot be translated either.

Some linguists choose to add inflecting suffixes to source words (i.e. Windowsහට), although this is generally considered to be unacceptable. Most transliterations cause problems when inflected, just as acronyms can turn into profanities very easily when translated. I’ve seen the word ‘more’ in a glossary translated as “තව.” This term acts as a pronoun, an adverb, and an adjective in different contexts, so the number of variations is high. Another notable point is term ‘available.’ In Sinhala, there is no proper translation for this adjective. Depending on what part of a sentence it is placed in, ‘available’ will be given several translations. These situations hinder a translators’ ability to work quickly, and in turn spend more of the clients’ time and money.

Most translation literature contains grouped terms. Consider your mobile telephone’s home screen, for instance: there are set text identifiers available, in addition to paired words like “sign in” or “sign out.” In Sinhalese publications, keeping these terms grouped is essential, because it not only generates readability and understanding, but also shows the organization’s effort to translate their literature correctly. Within a group of nouns, think of an isolated verb. Alternatively, think of an unmatched paired word. Those could lower the quality of translation, and this mistake is most common in localizing content. This can be avoided with a sound glossary. As a simple theory: when you assign a term for ‘download,’ give enough care to assign one to ‘upload’ as well, because when a Sinhala user sees “ඇතුල්වන්න”(“Enter”) on a webpage, (s)he will look for “පිටවන්න”(“Exit”) when needed, but not for “ඉවත්වන්න”(“Go away”).

Most technical terms do not have equivalent terms in Sinhala. Therefore, creating a term for a source term will be compulsory in some cases. If you have ever been in such a situation and have created a new word, it’s a good idea to then check its appropriateness. If it is a noun, match the related sound + suffix conditions. Moreover, for a verb, follow the relevant rules. Check for uniqueness too, otherwise your efforts will be in vain and your project’s content will lose quality.

Clients prefer that some of their terms be kept as standard, even if they can be translated. The term ‘mail’ (“මේල්”) is a common term on many software programs. This is not an inflected word in Sinhala, though for the sake of style of the translation it may need to be inflected. It is a wiser suggestion to abide by the policy of not allowing inflections when joining suffixes, and only with postpositional suffixes.

Once a glossary is assigned, it does not guarantee the quality of the website internationalization project, but it does help. There can still be errors in context, which might not be detected by a translation engine. Other possible issues from using synonyms may arise, especially in Pure Sinhala versus Mixed Sinhala and vice versa. The written language and spoken language is also an important factor, as even Sinhalese speakers who cannot write correctly can identify the isolated “spoken” parts in a text. Therefore, it is important to determine whether to include any colloquial, dialectal, slang, poetic, or rare words in the term base.

About Dewage Kumara

I am a native Sinhalese translator living in Sri Lanka. I work in the areas of website localization, software localization, translation terminology management, and website internationalization.