My goal in this translation pitfall series is to give you both a chuckle (or maybe a belly laugh) over some malapropisms and some cautionary tales about linguistic issues that can arise in translation – with potentially awkward results.

“Popular” vs. “Common” – Can a disease be popular?

The definitions, or “denotations,” of these words are pretty similar – they both essentially mean widespread. However, these terms vary greatly in usage and nuances of meaning, otherwise known as “connotations.” We might use “popular” to describe a person, song, or book; it has the connotation that something popular is something that people like.

“Common,” on the other hand, is more appropriate for describing problems or diseases – things that are widespread but not necessarily favorable. Describing a person as common has a whole different meaning – more along the lines of vulgar or ordinary, I have been amused by translations that refer to a disease as “popular” instead of “common” or “prevalent.” These terms may not have exact analogs in foreign languages, or foreign languages may tease apart these concepts differently from English. Needless to say, it is critical that the translator master these differences in connotation; otherwise, describing a disease as “popular” in a medical journal can be quite a cause for embarrassment.

Not to mention English has so many synonyms – add to these “prevalent,” “widespread,” “distributed”… and probably more, That makes five terms for very similar concepts. It is unlikely that a translator who is a non-native speaker of English (or whatever the target language may be, as this is just an example) could command these connotation differences well enough to avoid this pitfall. Such a translator would be uncommon, indeed.


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