Monday, September 6, 2010
A word is simply a worn-out metaphor, a French poet once said (Breton? Apollinaire? I forget…). In the case of the word “tighten” in relation to interest rates, one can almost see a metaphor in the process of hardening from metaphor to commonplace usage to new meaning. The phrase “tighten interest rates” is now so commonplace that its users probably never realize that it is actually a figure of speech. If one looks it up in the dictionary, the technical sense of “tighten” as in “to raise interest rates” simply does not show up:
Definition of TIGHTEN
: to make tight or tighter
: to become tight or tighter
— tight•en•er\ˈtīt-nər, ˈtī-tən-ər\ noun
— tighten one's belt
: to practice strict economy
This is just the monolingual English dictionaries. The bilingual English-Spanish dictionaries are no help either. The ones that come closest without exactly hitting the nail on the head are Alcaraz Varó and Hughes, with “tightening of credit (BANCA restricción de crédito)” and Marina Orellana’s Glosario internacional para el traductor, which also comes close without illuminating the perplexed translator with “tightening of credit: contracción (rigidez) del crédito.” Both options dance around the issue without solving the conundrum definitively.
And yet the phrase is as common as grass. Try googling "tighten interest rates" between quotation marks in order to get the exact phrase and you get 129,000 hits. Moreover, the phrase is not recent: a short search on Google Books reveals a first hit dating from 1934.
Interest rates can only go up or down (or stay static, if you're very fastidious). If the translator knows that much, she can just decide that her challenge is to decide which meaning (up or down) needs to be identified. To “tighten credit” is itself a metaphor, of course. It means to make lending more restrictive. The way to restrict lending is to discourage potential lenders from taking on more borrowing. And how do you do that? By raising rates, of course. The “tightening of credit” probably migrated to the “tightening of interest rates.” Therefore, the correct translation is “aumentar las tasas de interés” or “elevar los tipos.” Or, if your text is very repetitive and you can get away with it, "restringir la oferta monetaria." A good example of relatively common technical jargon that is not found in either monolingual or bilingual dictionaries.