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Contemporary written English and grammar points for translating

Both Finnish Translation Industry Professionals (KAJ) and the Finnish Association of Translators and Interpreters (SKTL) together with our new association Nordic Translators and Editors (NEaT) were active last fall in arranging training on contemporary written English and grammar points for their members who translate into English. We are highly grateful for these opportunities and look forward to any related further education in English in Finland.

I would like to thank and congratulate the lecturers Neil Maclaverty and Stephen Stalter: translators and revisors are not the easiest audience to address. We carefully listen to every syllable you pronounce, meticulously check every sample sentence you produce, and eagerly let you know if there is anything we think you may have missed in your thought process. That being said / having said that (two of the most over-used expressions in contemporary spoken English!), well done.

Non-native translators and communication professionals need to make their writing more concise and fluent for a contemporary native-speaking audience, says Maclaverty. What exactly does “native” mean here, I had to ask, because large part of the English I write is read by people to whom English is not their first or even second language. On the contrary, most of the messages written for Finnish companies doing international business communications in English must be understood all over the world by people whose levels of English studies vary. Neil said he was referring to formally educated readers (mostly in the UK); an important adjustment I think.

Let go of first language influences and package information as native speakers expect

When translating, or writing in a second language, it is important to let go of first language influences and package information as native speakers expect. We should avoid broken-up style that consists of many short words and target fewer more descriptive and meaningful expressions, reducing the use of prepositional phrases and creating lean, statement-like modern English. For example, write “managerial opinion” instead of “the opinion of the management”. This will make it easier for the reader, whose comfort is professional writer’s priority.

The action in the sentence should be in the verb (as in the Finnish language). However, avoid the “can-can” and make use of modal adverbs: often, conceivably, undoubtedly. There are many useful verbs in English to promote, such as “endeavor”. Passive form is better to use for closure in the end of paragraph instead of when introducing new information. The longer the document, the more important it is to avoid repetitive structures. Go easy on the whos and hows, for example, and the future tense. Consider the tenses from the reader’s viewpoint and note the difference in meaning between “Queen to visit France” and “Queen will visit France”, especially in news articles.

Make an impact with “big-hitting” collocations

Neil presented many good points about writing patterns during the day. When editing text, remember to do it on all levels: document, paragraph, and sentence. Contemporary style is a mix of registers, academic and informal language used side by side, all steps leading up to make an impact with “big-hitting” collocations. The objective is to make the message as concise and impactful as possible, readable and understandable to both native and global audiences. Within modern communication, everything exists in a shared, linked context. If you are interested in this training, KAJ is arranging a re-run in February, more information here.

At SKTL and NEaT’s shared event, Grammar Points for Translating into English, Stephen Stalter reminded us of parallelism and consistency in idioms. Parallel structures, such as comparable items in a series, increase readability, clarity, and rhythm. For those in doubt of using the Oxford comma: use it for the sake of clarity. The most important thing is to accomplish the author’s intent by making the sentence at least understandable, if not elegant. Clarity is the primary objective for a translator or editor, for both native and non-native speakers; perhaps not a mark of quality but a mark of purpose. One way to increase clarity is to use more verbs. In contrast to Finnish, all nouns can be “verbed” in English. If you find yourself slipping over words that are hard to perceive, add more verbs to the sentence.

Hit the sentence with a machete instead of a scalpel

That versus which is an eternal dilemma when writing in English. Ultimately, it is a question of restrictive versus non-restrictive clauses. Note the difference between “the core samples that came from Antarctica” vs. “the core samples, which came from Antarctica”. In the latter case, the relative pronoun indicates that there are several types of core samples and some of them came from Antarctica. Missing the restrictive meaning “would be screaming wrongo-bongo”, said Stephen.

We also discussed “the unspoken context” of using or not using commas before, for example, who, and wordiness and stacking in general. “Hit the sentence with a machete instead of a scalpel” I think was the expression we heard from Stephen. Useless words are like padding and get in the way of what you want to say. Aim for “catch-all” terms that make text more concise. At best, translation is the collaborative effort of the translator, author, and a communication specialist; a kind of dance that we should try teach our clients to perform with us. If language topics like this make you tick, stay tuned for more NEaT seminars during 2015.

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