Are translation equivalents really equivalent? Evidence from concreteness effects in translation priming

Adel Chaouch Orozco, Jorge González Alonso, Jon Andoni Duñabeitia, Jason Rothman

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Aims and Objectives:Translation equivalents intuitively seem to overlap in meaning. Moreover, the models of the bilingual lexicon often represent the meaning shared between two translations as a holistic node in the semantic network. However, research on semantic representation and processing questions this holistic approach. For instance, abstract words are assumed to be more language-dependent, while concrete words’ meanings are seen as more consistent cross-linguistically. The non-cognate translation priming paradigm offers an ideal methodological setting to study semantic overlap (proxied by concreteness) between translations. Priming effects between non-cognate translation equivalents are assumed to emerge due to spreading activation at the semantic level. Hence, a larger semantic overlap between translation prime-target pairs should lead to larger priming effects. Nevertheless, the evidence from previous translation priming studies investigating concreteness displays a blurry picture, potentially reflecting a shared limitation: their relatively small sample sizes. We overcame this problem by analysing the largest translation priming dataset to date.

Methodology:Two hundred Spanish–English highly proficient bilinguals were tested in a bidirectional translation priming experiment employing 314 non-cognate translation equivalents differing in concreteness.

Data and analysis:We analysed response times and error rates employing conservative (generalized) linear mixed-effects models.

Findings:The results showed that concrete translation pairs elicited larger priming effects than abstract ones, evidencing differences in semantic representation between concrete and abstract words. Importantly, the influence of concreteness appeared only in the forward translation direction, suggesting language experience-related differences in meaning representation.

Originality:The present study analysed the largest dataset in the translation priming literature to date, employing a conservative statistical approach to shed light on the effects of concreteness on translation priming.

Implications:Our study spotlights the complexity and non-holistic nature of the bilingual semantic representation of concrete and abstract words. The present findings call for more research to help the current models of the bilingual lexicon implement more nuanced semantic representations.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Journal of Bilingualism
Publication statusPublished - 13 Jan 2023


  • Concreteness
  • translation equivalents
  • semantic overlap
  • bilingual lexicon
  • translation priming
  • semantic representation


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