Interview with Alicia María Zorrilla

Alicia María Zorrilla is an Argentine linguist specialized in normative grammar and lexicography. She obtained a degree in Philosophy and Letters at the Complutense University of Madrid and a PhD in Letters at Salvador University in Argentina. Her reputation allowed her to become the vice-president of the Academia Argentina de Letras (Argentine Academy of Letters), which carries out research on local popular vocabulary and publishes works on the norms of written and oral Spanish. She is also a member of the Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy), which participates in the creation of standardized dictionaries for general and specific uses of Spanish. With other member institutions, she carries out terminology research in the field of Grammar.

Dr. Zorrilla is a founding member of the Fundación Litterae, a training and research facility which offers grammar, lexicology and terminology courses. Her foundation has created an innovative degree in proofreading for translators. Both she and her foundation work closely with translation and editing associations in Argentina.

Alicia María Zorrilla


Read our interview with Alicia María Zorrilla in Spanish here.


1) Dr. Zorrilla, in your various books, you write about normative grammar and the correct use of language. As a member of the Argentine Academy of Letters or AAL, you help define the norms for the local variety of Spanish. From a normative point of view, how does one use become preferable to another in a particular region?

Pragmatic norms come from actual speech, from each individual’s creativity. People put their language into practice when they speak. Through this practice, they reinforce what they have learned and come up with new words and phrases, which can spread through continued use. The preference for one word over another depends on the choices made by speakers. In Spanish, if they colloquially say delante de mí; debajo de la mesa; en busca de su hijo; detrás de la puerta es porque ante mí; bajo la mesa; en pos de su hijo y tras la puerta [1]“, this is because they consider the latter to be more formal, more appropriate for literature than for spoken language. The context, i.e. the linguistic environment, imbues a word or phrase with meaning and value.

[1] Note: possible equivalents in English may be: “the person in front of me” instead of “the person before me”, “from now on” instead of “henceforth”, “under the table” instead of “beneath the table”, or “do a task” instead of “execute a task”.


2) Some of your works have dealt with lexicography. Much of the literature on the matter highlights the differences between lexicography and terminology[2]. Do you think there is a relationship between the two? Are there similarities?

From my point of view, lexicography cannot exist without terminology. As part of Linguistics, the former works with various theories to create dictionaries or glossaries, the latter records terms that are specific to a certain type of science, discipline or subject-matter. A term is a word, a linguistic unit, and it is part of a dictionary or glossary. I think there is a fruitful interaction between them.

[2] For example, and the Lexikos journal.


3) When a specific foreign word or phrase is widely used in a specialized or scientific domain to refer to a new concept, does the norm usually dictate that this word be replaced by a synonym or a neologism? How can we make sure the specialized/scientific community understands this alternative and uses it to replace the foreign word?

Xenisms or foreignisms in their original form can be used in italics[3] if they do not have a translation. If there is a synonym that is not a foreignism, it is advisable to use the latter. It is true that in the context of science and technology, this is not always a possibility because some specialized foreignisms are very common. In such cases, they should be used in italics the first time they are used in each text.

[3] Note that Zorrilla is referring to stylistic and lexical rules for Spanish that can also be applied to English but not necessarily to all languages. Foreignisms in science and technology are very common in Spanish (especially so-called Anglicisms and Gallicisms), while in these fields, English tends to use neologisms.


4) When can a neologism in a specialized domain be considered correct by the general norm? How does the AAL work with these new specialized terms?

When a neologism is morphologically well-formed and it is appropriate for the meaning it is intended to convey, it is no longer considered a neologism, if it is extensively used in its specialized field. The Academia Argentina de Letras (Argentine Academy of Letters), much like other Spanish Language Academies, researches new terms and sends the Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy) reports on the matter. They are then included in scholarly guidelines (or norms) and are recorded in the Diccionario de la Lengua Española (Spanish Language Dictionary) if their extended use is confirmed.


5) You have created many workshops, courses, and institutions for editors. You are a founding member of the Fundación Litterae, a training institution for editors and translators, which sometimes offers terminology workshops. The Foundation has created the degree in Editing for Translators. Is there a difference between editors of monolingual texts and translation editors? In your opinion, could terminology studies be relevant for both or is this field outside of their scope?

The LITTERAE Foundation, of which I have been the president for 23 years, has created a degree, the International Proofreader for Spanish, with the support of the Fundéu[4] [Urgent Spanish Foundation]. It is aimed at professionals who wish to work in a new field and improve their writing skills. It is a two-year course. If students pass the first year, they become copyholders. If they pass the second year, they become international proofreaders. There is an optional third year in order to obtain an Advanced Diploma in Spanish Proofreading. We also offer a course for Spanish translation editing so that translators can correct their own mistakes. It is not a degree, but rather a certificate detailing the classes each student has passed. There are four subjects: Spanish Grammar, Spanish Linguistic Norms, Norms for Written Language, and Text Editing.

This year we have a new degree: Spanish Translation Editing. It consists of a two year program and it includes classes with specialized terminology for translators, such as legal and economic/financial translation editing, literary translation editing, scientific and technical translation editing and Terminology.

[4] The Fundación del Español Urgente is a non-profit organization based in Spain founded in 2005 with the aim of fostering the accepted, normatively correct use of Spanish in the media. It is sponsored by the EFE Agency and the BBVA bank and counseled by the Royal Spanish Academy. It publishes subject-specific glossaries for current media topics such as environment, sports, politics, geography, etc., focusing on the norms that regulate the correct use of each lexical unit.


6) When translating a specialized text in a field that is constantly changing, a translator may find several different options in the target language to translate the same term in the source language. Sometimes the most widely used of these alternatives are foreign words or neologisms that not always conform to the norm. In your opinion, what factor/s should prevail when deciding which translation is correct? (For example, should we prioritize frequency of use, adaptability to the norm, reference to scholarly uses, etc.)

From the point of view of my academic background, the scholarly norm should prevail. But many neologisms are well formed, and meet the requirements of the grammatical system. Their extended use indicates that they are necessary because there are no appropriate substitutes in the target language. In these cases, if they make a text clearer and follow local linguistic norms, they should be accepted. Of course, we must always take into account the kind of text with which we are working. Translating a novel is not the same as translating a medical or legal text.

It is important not to use a neologism for a word that already exists in the target language, since this would show poor vocabulary on the translator’s part. For example, in Spanish, the following lexical neologisms should not be used: *accesar instead of acceder; *aconsejamiento [advise] instead of consejo; *atractividad [attractiveness] instead of atractivo; *negligen [neglect] instead of descuidan; *profesionabilidad [professionalism] instead of profesionalidad; *similaridades [similarities] instead of semejanzas; *usabilidad [usability] instead of uso.

Some semantic neogolisms that should not be accepted in Spanish are: detentar [hold] instead of ejercer [exercise], desempeñar [perform] o poseer [possess]; insumir [invest/involve] instead of consumir [consume/take up]; suplantar [impersonate] instead of reemplazar [replace], suplir [make up for] or sustituir [substitute].


7) What is the aim of the Academia Argentina de Letras (AAL)? What type of research does it carry out?

The tasks carried out by the AAL, founded in Buenos Aires on August 13th 1931, are the following: unifying the study of speech and of texts produced in Argentina in order to enrich the language; being in charge of creating, judging and regulating national literary awards; promoting ways to better Argentine theater, as it is key for popular culture and education; safeguarding the correct use of the language, through direct intervention or by helping national and province departments or individuals who may ask for its counsel.

The AAL carries out lexicographic and lexicological research and periodically publishes its Diccionario del habla de los argentinos [Dictionary of Argentine Spoken Spanish]. It also publishes a series of glossaries (“The Academy and the Language of the People”) focused the specialized language of breads, homemade deserts, meats, politics, barrels, babies, folk medicine in the province of San Juan, cars, cycling, Andean mountaineering, mate[5], folk weapons, tango, local dancing, theater, basketry, etc.

In short, the aim of the AAL is not only to record the characteristics of the Spanish spoken in the River Plate region or in the Argentine territory, but also to take action to regulate the use of the language and stimulate literary studies.

I also wish to highlight the work of our Library, founded in 1932, which houses the most important book collection in the country. It is specialized in Linguistics, and in Argentine, Spanish and Hispano-American literature. Its director and some of its librarians carry out research that is later published by this institution.

[5] Mate is a traditional South American infused drink.


8) How does the Academia Argentina de Letras (AAL) cooperate with the Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy) and other Latin American institutions? How is this cooperation coordinated/ managed?

The AAL has a Department of Philological Research, made up of graduate and postgraduate scholars specialized in Letters. This Department collaborates with plenary sessions of scholars, prepares comments and additions to the Diccionario de la lengua española [Dictionary of the Spanish Language] and updates local lexical studies. The reports issued by this Department are sent to the Real Academia Española [Royal Spanish Academy] to supplement future editions of its Dictionary.

Today, this book is prepared by 22 Spanish Language Academies and its acronym is no longer DRAE (Royal Spanish Academy Dictionary) but rather DLE (Dictionary of the Spanish Language)[6]. With other Latin American academic institutions, the AAL can work as a consultant in a specific subject-matter if asked to do so. Institutions combine their efforts to unify the Spanish language.

[6] In Spanish, the name changed from “Diccionario de la Real Academia Española” to “Diccionario de la Lengua Española”.


9) Do you find that the work that AAL and RAE do can benefit from and/or contribute to international terminology databases? Do you use terminology databases as a scholarly source for your research?

Of course. I am sure that the Department of Philological Research at the AAL uses them.

I specialize in Spanish Linguistic Norms, which means that I constantly study the norms that regulate the correct way to express oneself in oral and written form in Spanish. My focus is on Argentine linguistic norms. However, I work with Grammar terminology as well. At the moment I am part of the Interacademy Commission constituted to create a Glossary of Grammar Terms. This project is carried out by 22 Spanish Academies and I represent the Argentine Academy of Letters and I coordinate the work done by the River Plate linguistic region (Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay).


10) Have you ever worked with the InterActive Terminology for Europe database – IATE? Do you believe it could also be useful for editors and translators in other regions?

I have never worked with IATE. However, thanks to this interview, I was able to access the database and, after searching some terms, I find it can be a useful tool for translators in my country.

Read our interview with Alicia María Zorrilla in Spanish here.


Photo JuliaInterviewer

María Julia Francés has a degree in translation by the “Olga Cossettini” Institute for Higher Education and the University of Rosario, Argentina. She specializes in intercultural communication and cooperation through media projects. She also studied International Relations and is currently a student at the University of Barcelona’s Postgraduate program in International Cultural Cooperation and Management. She was a study visitor at TermCoord, the Terminology Coordination Unit at the European Parliament.