A look at the evolving terminology of international development as new socioeconomic concepts emerge.

Translating English Terms into Spanish, French, and Portuguese
The terminology of international development is constantly evolving as new socioeconomic concepts emerge. In over 10 years of experience as a translator of French, Portuguese and Spanish into English at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the writer has witnessed the appearance of a number of neologisms, either entirely new terms or established terms used with a different meaning in such international organizations as the IDB, World Bank and United Nations Development Programme.

Most of the terms have relatively transparent translations. For example, "microenterprise" in English is micro-entreprise in French, microempresa in Portuguese and microempresa in Spanish. However, certain English expressions have proven distinctly more challenging to render into the Romance languages. Two prime examples are "gender" and "governance."
  1. Microenterprise
  2. When the term "microenterprise" first started showing up in IDB documents over 10 years ago, the staff translators puzzled over what the difference could possibly be with a "small enterprise" (petite entreprise/pequena empresa/pequea empresa). How much smaller than "small" could a microenterprise be?

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Neologisms in International Development
Author: Alexandra Russell-Bitting
S. Alexandra Russell-Bitting has been a staff translator-reviser at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C. for 11 years and has worked freelance for other international organizations such as UNESCO, the Pan American Health Organization and the Organization of American States, as well as for the United States Department of State. She has taught translation at Georgetown University and the Universit de Paris VIII and is a regular contributor to The ATA Chronicle. 
By Alexandra Russell-Bitting
Published on 06/5/2005
The Internet can often provide helpful information to understand the meaning of new terminology, find foreign-language equivalents and verify usage, provided reliable sites are selected.
The Chief of the Microenterprise Development Unit at the IDB explained that generally speaking, while a small business typically has fewer than 20-50 employees depending on the country, a microenterprise has fewer than 10, usually unsalaried family members, and often consists of just one person.

Another basic difference between the two types of enterprises is that small businesses are usually incorporated, that is, officially registered as such. Microenterprises, on the other hand, are a huge part of the "informal" economy, that mass of unregistered, unlicensed, unreported trade thriving on city streets throughout the developing world.

Around the globe, microenterprise development has proven an effective means of improving employment and increasing income for the poor, especially for women. Often cited for its success is the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which noticed that women tended to use their tiny profits to feed and educate their children. "Microfinance is about much more than access to credit," says Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM). "It is about women gaining control over their lives."

  • Gender
  • This brings us to the term "gender," which most English speakers understand as synonymous with "sex." In the social sciences, however, it has a different connotation: experts in the Women in Development Unit of the IDB explained that where "sex" means the way we are born (male or female), "gender" means how we are raised. For example, in some countries, women have higher illiteracy rates than men because girls are expected to stay home to care for younger siblings. This is an example of a "gender issue."

    Gender issues usually refer to women, as in the case of gender bias or gender disparities, but they can also sometimes refer to men. In El Salvador, for instance, the men who fought in the devastating civil war that the country endured for over 10 years face particular health and employment problems that women do not.


    Use of the Spanish term gnero for this socioeconomic acceptation of "gender" generated intense controversy among Spanish linguists, highlighting the conflicting perspectives of experts and translators in cases of new usage of an already existing term. The controversy culminated when Spanish terminologists at the United Nations produced a glossary for the 1996 U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing. They struggled to provide various renderings of gender depending on the context, such as por sexo, de la mujer, etc., scrupulously avoiding gnero.

    But when the Spanish-speaking delegates to the conference saw the glossary, they demanded that the term gnero be added, citing its usage in original Spanish source texts in the social sciences. A revised version of the glossary had to be published with gnero included in all the entries for "gender."

    In practical terms, though, when the meaning of "gender" overlaps with that of "sex," sexo can still be used, as in desglose por sexo for "gender breakdown." If it is clear that the text only refers to women, then de la mujer will sometimes work, as in promocin de la mujer for "gender development." An interesting rendition of the term "gender bias" into Spanish is sexismo. In other instances, though, gnero is used, as in anlisis de gnero for "gender analysis."


    In French, the term genre is still only used in grammar. In the development context, there are various renditions of "gender": for "gender issues," la problmatique hommes-femmes; for "gender disparities," discriminations lies au sexe or sexospcifiques; "gender analysis," analyse des questions de parit.


    Likewise, in Portuguese, gnero is only used in the grammatical sense. So in cases where the meaning of "gender" overlaps with that of "sex," sexo is used, as in composio por sexo for "gender breakdown"; other examples are desigualdades entre os sexos for "gender disparities"; and anlise em funo do sexo for "gender analysis." If it is clear from the context that "gender" only refers to women, then da mulher will sometimes work, as in promoo da mulher for "gender development."

  • Governance
  • A key concept in improving government is "governance." The World Bank defines the term as "the manner in which power is exercised in the management of a country's economic and social resources for development." IDB experts in modernization of the State point out that governance is important because worldwide economic development has been found to be linked to the quality of government. Weak judicial institutions, outdated legal frameworks, corruption and inefficiency in the public administration have meant poor governance in many developing countries.

    Good governance, on the other hand, requires robust, effective legal systems, honest management of public funds and institutions, and social equity; it begins with strong institutions. The term "governability" is now being used as a synonym for good governance; in this context, it therefore means not whether a country can be governed, but how well it is governed.


    The Spanish translation of "governance" varies: suggestions found in glossaries and other documents published by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) include gestin pblica, gestin del sector pblico, buen gobierno, ejercicio del poder, and funcin de gobierno. It is interesting to note, however, that the original Spanish agreement reached at the 1996 Summit of the Americas featured gobernabilidad as the central issue; in it, the 23 heads of State and government pledged to strengthen political institutions, reform public administration and decentralize the State. In other words, they were referring to "good governance" or "governability."


    IMF and World Bank documents suggest the following French equivalents for "governance": (bonne) gestion des affaires publiques; efficacit de l'administration; qualit de l'administration; mode de gouvernement. The term gouvernance is also increasingly being used.


    Suggestions for rendering "governance" into Portuguese are: gesto pblica and administrao pblica. For "good governance" or "governability," the Portuguese equivalent governabilidade is also being used in this sense.

    Resources for Translators

    These examples show that socioeconomics is not as static a field as the uninitiated might think. Translators should be aware of new terms as they emerge in response to constantly evolving concerns and approaches and should seek out appropriate sources of information to properly render the neologisms. The Internet can often provide helpful information to understand the meaning of new terminology, find foreign-language equivalents and verify usage, provided reliable sites are selected. Below is an annotated list of recommended sites.

    Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean:
    http://www.eclac.org and http://www.cepal.org
    Mostly Spanish-language publications, research and studies, projects, databases, news and more

    Foreign Trade Information System (Organization of American States):
    Excellent site with information in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish, including the full texts of international trade agreements (such as MERCOSUR agreements) and bilateral investment treaties, and links to official investment sites

    Inter-American Development Bank:
    English and Spanish information on IDB projects, publications, policies, research and statistics and some publications in French and Portuguese

    International Monetary Fund:
    Information, reports, statistics, news and publications, mainly in English, but sometimes in French and occasionally also in Spanish.

    Pan American Health Organization:
    English and Spanish country health profiles, publications, library services and more

    United Nations:
    English, French and Spanish links to all U.N. agencies, including the UNDP

    World Bank:
    News, publications, topics in development, data on countries and regions, in English, French and Spanish.

    Email Alexandra: alexandrarb@yahoo.com

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