Why are English translations shorter than foreign language texts?

Résumé en français : Avec l’aide de quatre éléments (subordination, articulation, usages de ponctuation, verbosité), ce billet expliquera pourquoi les traductions anglaises sont souvent, sinon toujours, plus courtes que les textes étrangers. Pour ce blogue, je donne des exemples de textes espagnols et français qui cadrent dans les éléments abordés, et je fournis ensuite les traductions anglaises. Bien entendu, les éléments ne sont pas limités à l’espagnol ni au français, voire à l’anglais; il est possible que ces procédés soient aussi reflétés dans d’autres langues étrangères.

Resumen en español: Gracias a cuatro elementos (subordinación, articulación, usos de puntuación, palabrería), este comentario explicará los motivos por los cuales las traducciones inglesas son a menudo, sino siempre, más cortas que los textos extranjeros. Por este comentario, doy ejemplos de textos españoles y franceses que cuadran los elementos en cuestión y luego, doy las traducciones inglesas. Ojo: no se puede limitar estos elementos al español ni al francés, incluso inglés: es posible que los procedimientos discutidos aparezcan en otros idiomas extranjeros.

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If you’re the type of reader who consults bilingual or multilingual publications, you have probably noticed something that language specialists like myself observe: whenever a text has been translated into English, the English version is usually – if not always – shorter than a foreign language text. At about now, you’re probably asking yourself the following question: why are English translations shorter than the foreign language counterparts?

As surprising as it may seem, the answer to this question is simple. Perhaps I should say that the answers are simple, for there are a number of them. (In an effort to avoid a long, exhaustive column, I will set out four reasons why English translations are shorter.) Because I work mainly with Spanish and French, I will provide examples of long sentences in these languages and their shorter English equivalents. Of course, the phenomenon of long sentences is not restricted to Spanish and French: we can notice it in any foreign language.

  •      1.  Spanish and French express subordination, English encourages juxtaposition.

When analyzing syntax – or the function of words in a sentence, subordination is closely linked to subordinate and coordinate clauses, that is the use of conjunctions such as because, before, if, and so on for the former, and some conjunctions such as and, but, for, and however for the latter. In translation circles, translators characterize subordination as hypotaxis – grammatical arrangement of “unequal” constructs – because sentences in foreign languages contain a string of subordinate clauses; hence, they are extremely long. In contrast, English deconstructs long sentences to create shorter ones.

Tin Pan Alley, ou la « rue des bruits de casserole », fait référence au courant musical né sur la 28e rue à New York au début du siècle dernier, qui a donné le jour à un grand nombre de standards du jazz encore appréciés aujourd’hui.

Tin Pan Alley refers to an early twentieth-century musical trend that had its roots on New York City’s 28th Street. This gave rise to a number of American jazz standards people enjoy to this day.

In the above example, notice how the French language likes to link several ideas into one long, complex sentence. This is done by using the subordinate qui after siècle dernier. English is less forgiving with this practice, preferring juxtaposition. Note that the first sentence in the translation ends with Street. The second sentence begins with the deictic this, which refers to the musical trend that saw the day in New York City in the early half of the last century. In addition, notice that the French source text (ST) amplified the concept of Tin Pan Alley, for this musical trend may not necessarily be easily recognized among a French-language readership. Such amplification is unnecessary in English because it is assumed that English-language readers know what this musical trend was about. Besides, it originated in the United States, not in France or Quebec.

  •  2. Spanish and French express articulation, English emphasizes coordination.

While Spanish and French articulate – or show connection of – ideas, English does something that the aforementioned languages don’t: it coordinates ideas. Simply put, English uses coordinating conjunctions to link ideas (see examples of coordinating conjunctions in point 1).

Lean el texto antes de traducirlo.

Lire le texte avant de le traduire.

Read the text and translate it.

In the above examples, Spanish and French articulate the sentences by using antes de and avant de, respectively. English, on the other hand, contends itself with coordinating the two ideas with and.

  • 3.      Punctuation rules in the three languages differ.

When consulting parallel texts, you may have noticed that the use of punctuation is not exactly the same in each language. When Spanish and French use colons or semi-colons, for instance, English prefers periods and uses commas frequently. In some cases, the dash is quite prevalent, as shown in the last example.

Un tercer paso lo constituye la integración de la producción agrícola y artesana en la economía socialista, a través de la formación de cooperativas que resuelvan o por lo menos amortigüen la falta de economías de escala en sectores tan fragmentados; y que al propio tiempo vayan imprimiendo una mentalidad de organización y planeamiento, y solidaridad con los demás sectores del sistema.

The third stage is to integrate agricultural and craft production into the socialist economy. This is achieved in these greatly fragmented sectors by forming co-operatives that, at least in part, make up for the absence of economies of scale. At the same time, these co-operatives help to create a receptive attitude toward organization and planning, as well as solidarity with other sectors of the economy.

Mais il y a des gens qui gagnent bien leur vie : les médecins, les ingénieurs, les avocats.

But there are people, such as doctors, engineers, solicitors, who earn a lot of money.

Le feuilleton a commencé il y a plusieurs semaines. Il semble inépuisable : c’est celui des turpitudes du régime passé. Fraudes gigantesques, scandales en tout genre, viols, assassinats, tout y passe dans cette chronique du règne des militaires, dont les scandales alimentent quotidiennement la presse.

The floodgates were opened a few weeks ago and show no sign of closing for the time being. Every day the newspapers come up with new scandals of every description involving anything from fraud on a massive scale to rape and murder.

  • 4.      Beware of wordiness in foreign language texts!

For this last reason, I would like to share a post I encountered on an English translation agency’s Twitter feed. Either consciously or unconsciously, source language (SL) authors may not realize that their texts are wordy; translators may not notice wordiness until they have rewritten and proofread their target language (TL) texts. Consider this example:

La durée d’évaluation s’étend sur une période de 14 jours. (My underlining)

As English translators (myself included), we may, by reflex, be compelled to translate the above sentence like this: “The evaluation period extends over a period of 14 days.” Whether or not we are conscious about what we just translated, we may not realize that our translation reflects the same sentence structure as the original text. What is more, we may not have noticed that the English sentence was indeed wordy. Because English is showing a greater tendency toward conciseness, the above translation needs streamlining to “The evaluation period is 14 days.” It is important to check texts for wordiness whenever you undertake editing tasks. With any luck, you’ll be able to take shortcuts and express a wordy sentence in a few words – just like the translator of this short text.

The above four points should have given you an idea of understanding why an English translation never has the same length as a foreign text. If some of you occasionally or regularly produce reverse translations, these same four points, and many others, can help you understand why your foreign translations will likely be longer than the original English text. If some of you do not use English as a SL, what other SLs coordinate, subordinate, or articulate texts? Do your SLs encourage concise writing habits? How do your SLs address punctuation rules versus those of your respective TLs?

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I would like to take this opportunity to wish all of you a Happy Easter!

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2 comments

  1. I really like this king of contrastive linguistic analysis!

    1. Thanks for your comments, Vito! It’s certainly fascinating to discover how languages are different in the context of translation. Have a great weekend!

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