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Cute Little Diminutives and How to Translate Them

June 23, 2017

     What better way is there to show linguistic love than with a diminutive? They are some of the first suffixes we learn in our native tongue or in a new language, and we see an example of how ingrained they are in the English word “baby,” which is actually diminutive of the word “babe.”

 A "baby."

 

     Wikipedia defines diminutives as “a word which has been modified to convey a slighter degree of its root meaning, to convey the smallness of the object or quality named, or to convey a sense of intimacy or endearment.” I am going to focus here on the usages (1) to communicate the smallness of the subject and (2) to communicate a sense of endearment, because people often confuse the two in translation.

 

     Let’s take my husband’s name, Thomas, as an example. If a Spanish-speaking buddy wrote him a letter, he might address him with the diminutive of Tomás, which is Tomasito. It would sound rather silly if I translated Estimado Tomasito as “Dear little Thomas,” and it might even embarrass the writer. “Dear Tommy” more accurately conveys his intended meaning in English.

 

     A more difficult example is the word Perrito in Spanish. Perrito really is often the equivalent of “doggie” OR “little dog” in English, so context is very important. In such a situation you must use your judgment. If you are translating a story in which a person comes home and greets her pet St. Bernard with the words, “Hola, perrito,” then perrito is best translated as “doggy,” unless the author is creating a sense of irony.

 This perrito is both small and endearing. :) Pay close attention to the context, and use your judgment.

 

     Although this issue may seem small (no pun intended), confusing a diminutive that is intended to convey small size with one that is meant to convey endearment is a very common mistake that will stand out to your, and your client’s, audience. Avoiding this pitfall will go a long way toward making your translation sound natural!

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