The Complete Plain Words: simple versus complex

Golden rule: Simple is better than complex.

If you have an interesting message to deliver there is no need to make it sound any more complex than it actually is.

Why do so many writers prefer pudder to simplicity? Officials are far from being the only offenders. It seems to be a morbid condition contracted in early manhood. Children show no signs of it. Here, for example, is the response of a child of ten to an invitation to write an essay on a bird and a beast:

«The bird that I am going to write about is the owl. The owl cannot see at all by day and at night is as blind as a bat. I do not know much about the owl, so I will go on to the beast which I am going to choose. It is the cow. The cow is a mammal. It has six sides—right, left, an upper and below. At the back it has a tail on which hangs a brush. With this it sends the flies away so that they do not fall into the milk. The head is for the purpose of growing horns and so that the mouth can be somewhere. The horns are to butt with, and the mouth is to moo with. Under the cow hangs the milk. It is arranged for milking. When people milk, the milk comes and there is never an end to the supply. How the cow does it I have not yet realised, but it makes more and more. The cow has a fine sense of smell; one can smell it far away. This is the reason for the fresh air in the country. The man cow is called an ox. It is not a mammal. The cow does not eat much, but what it eats it eats twice, so that it gets enough. When it is hungry it moos, and when it says nothing it is because its inside is all full up with grass.»

The writer had something to say and said it as clearly as he could, and so has unconsciously achieved style. But why do we write, when we are ten, “so that the mouth can be somewhere” and perhaps when we are thirty “in order to ensure that the mouth may be appropriately positioned environmentally”? [From “The Complete Plain Words“, Sir Ernest Gowers]

For some strange reason this passage reminds me of “The Catcher in the Rye”. What an interesting remark: “if you have something to say, style is achieved unconsciously“.

The Complete Plain Words: simple versus complex

The Complete Plain Words: wordiness

Golden rule: less is better than more.

Here are two versions of a letter sent in reply to a telephone line request. The first version is the original, the second is the one revised by Sir Ernest Gowers.

Version A. I regret however that (1) the Survey Officer who is responsible for the preliminary investigation as to the technical possibility of installing a telephone at the address quoted by the applicant has reported that (2) owing to a shortage of spare wires to the underground cable (a pair of wires leading from the point near your house right back to the local exchange and thus a pair of wires essential for the provision of telephone service for you) is lacking and that therefore (3) it is a technical impossibility to install a telephone for you.

Version B. I am sorry to tell you that (1) we have found (2) that there is no spare pair of wires on the cable that we would have used to connect your house with the exchange. I regret therefore that (3) it is impossible to install a telephone for you. [From “The Complete Plain Words“, Sir Ernest Gowers]

At first glance, it may appear that no one in his mind would ever express himself as in Version A, except perhaps the government officials to whom Gowers’ book was addressed back in 1954.

However, Version A is not as far-fetched as it may seem. It is very close to the way in which many native Italians speak and write, notably politicians, poor lecturers, and would-be professors.

Let us have a look at how the two versions differ.

  1. Version B (1) has replaced the “Survey Officer”  with a more generic “we have found”. This is correct, as it is absolutely irrelevant for the person requesting the telephone line to know who is actually in charge of carrying out the investigation.
  2. It has also removed a piece of information that is most certainly already present in the letter’s subject line and thus is redundant: “as to the technical possibility of installing a telephone at the address quoted by the applicant”.
  3. Furthermore, Version B has replaced the tedious explanation in (2) with a more succinct one that does away with the cumbersome brackets. Once again, the abridged version is much clearer.
  4. In (3) “technical impossibility” was replaced with “it is impossible to”. We can only speculate on why they used “technical impossibility” in the first place, maybe to suggest that they *did* put some effort in trying to get the job done but that for (technical) reasons beyond their control they were unable to.

The example above is especially instructive for a simultaneous interpreter since it elaborates on the apparently trivial ability of “taking away” that proves invaluable in keeping up with a fast paced speaker while producing coherent, accurate and meaningful sentences.

Here is just one other example, a classic of interpreting taken from the proceedings of a UN conference (Chernov 1994, 146):

Chairman: “And now I give the floor to the distinguished representative of the Republic of Tanzania”

Translated by the interpreter with: “Tanzania”

This example shows just how important context is in eliminating redundancies:

  1. I” – is implied, since the floor is usually given by the chairman
  2. now” – is implied, since the speech is taking place in that moment
  3. give the floor” – is standard conference terminology
  4. to the distinguished” – is just a formal embellishment
  5. representative” – is implied, since all participants at that meeting were representing their countries
  6. of the republic of” – can be omitted as it applies to all countries, with the exception of perhaps a handful of kingdoms.
The Complete Plain Words: wordiness

The strange case of the mouse’s balls

In the article below, Umberto Eco writes of an amusing hoax that circulated in Italy some years ago, concerning a humorous (but fake) instruction leaflet on computer pointing devices (mice), that had been allegedly translated with some automated tool. The hoax was reported as genuine by the Italian press, which took it as an example of the pitfalls of machine translation.

(…) «Se il vostro topo ha difficoltà a funzionare correttamente, o funziona a scatti, è possibile che esso abbia bisogno di una palla di ricambio. A causa della delicata natura della procedura di sostituzione delle palle, è sempre consigliabile che essa sia eseguita da personale esperto. Prima di procedere, determinate di che tipo di palle ha bisogno il vostro topo. Per fare ciò basta esaminare la sua parte inferiore. Le palle dei topi americani sono normalmente più grandi e più dure di quelle dei topi d’oltreoceano… La protezione delle palle dei topi d’oltreoceano può essere semplicemente fatta saltare via con un fermaglino, mentre sulla protezione delle palle dei topi americani deve essere prima esercitata una torsione in senso orario o antiorario… Si raccomanda al personale di portare costantemente con sé un paio di palle di riserva, così da garantire sempre la massima soddisfazione ai clienti».

Molto divertente, come si vede, e bene inventata. Salvo che questa istruzione, attribuita alla Ibm, è certamente falsa.

Continue reading “The strange case of the mouse’s balls”

The strange case of the mouse’s balls

Consecutive interpreting without note taking: blasphemy?

I know, the title sounds ridiculous. Consecutive interpreting without note taking is like a sunny day without the sun, like solid air and liquid earth. Or is it not?

I actually believe that this idea is not as far fetched as it may initially appear, for one simple reason: that we now have the technological means of digitally recording a speech, playing it back with top notch audio quality and slowing it down without degrading the audio output.

Most modern digital recorders have all of these features, plus others such as sophisticated voice activated systems that stop the recorder automatically when the speaker pauses.

Are there any advantages in interpreting a speech consecutively by using a digital recorder instead of a traditional note taking system?

I believe there are many.

For one thing, while you are recording you can focus your full attention on listening, while perhaps jotting down a few numbers, names or words you anticipate you will have problems with afterwards.

There is very little tension in this phase, you don’t have to scramble to understand everything immediately nor do you have to write down every important detail, as you would with traditional note taking.

Then, once the speaker is over, you play the speech back in your earphones (possibily noise cancelling ones) and  interpret it “simultaneously”, but with the considerable advantage of having heard the speech already once before and of being able to pause it or slow it down if needed.

Consecutive interpreting without note taking: blasphemy?

Interpreter Training Resources

Here is a link to an internet site with a wealth of material aimed to interpreter students but equally useful for trainers and seasoned interpreters. I am particularly fond of the excerpts of some of the works of Daniel Gile, but there are many other interesting items, including detailed exercises for both simultaneous and consecutive interpreting.

Interpreter Training Resources

When literal is not accurate

Nec verbum verbo curabis reddere fidus interpres, Horace [As a true translator you will take care not to translate word for word]

Dictum non verbum de verbo, sed sensum exprimere de sensu, St. Jerome [Not a word-for-word  translation, but a translation that should express the sense as derived from the general meaning]

This interesting post from a blog on wordpress explains the difference between “word for word” and “dynamic equivalence” and argues that a balanced approach employing both is the most desirable. I will quote some parts of it.

Translation of any language is very much like reading music. Instead of notes, you have letters. Instead of chords, you have words. Instead of phrases, you have clauses. Instead of periods, you have sentences. The parallels go all the way up. In music, there is meaning on each one of these levels.

(…) the best-articulated translation philosophy I have found out there is the preface to the Holman Christian Standard Bible. They opt for the “optimal equivalence,” a philosophy that exhaustively examines the text “at every level (word, phrase, clause, sentence, discourse) in the original language to determine its original meaning and intention.” Their practice is then to use literal whenever possible, but when clarity demands an idiomatic translation, they will go for that, and put the literal translation in the footnote.

When literal is not accurate

JRR Tolkien’s languages

A rare recording of J.R.R. Tolkien from 1952 in which he recites the Quenya poem “Namárië”, famously sung by Galadriel in the chapter “Farewell to Lórien” in “The Lord of the Rings”.

If you want to learn some Quenya, the fictional language of Elves, have a look at the Quenya Grammar.

The full transcript of the recording and its translation follows:

Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen, yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron! Yéni ve lintë yuldar avánier mi oromardi lisse-miruvóreva Andúnë pella, Vardo tellumar nu luini yassen tintilar i eleni ómaryo airetári -lírinen.

Sí man i yulma nin enquantuva?

An sí Tintallë Varda Oiolossëo ve fanyar máryat Elentári ortanë, ar ilyë tier undulávë lumbulë; ar sindanóriello caita mornië i falmalinnar imbë met, ar hísië untúpa Calaciryo míri oialë. Sí vanwa ná, Rómello vanwa, Valimar!

Namárië! Nai hiruvalyë Valimar. Nai elyë hiruva. Namárië!”

“Ah! like gold fall the leaves in the wind, long years numberless as the wings of trees! The long years have passed like swift draughts of the sweet mead in lofty halls beyond the West, beneath the blue vaults of Varda wherein the stars tremble in the voice of her song, holy and queenly.

Who now shall refill the cup for me?

For now the Kindler, Varda, the Queen of the stars, from Mount Everwhite has uplifted her hands like clouds and all paths are drowned deep in shadow; and out of a grey country darkness lies on the foaming waves between us, and mist covers the jewels of Calacirya for ever. Now lost, lost to those of the East is Valimar!

Farewell! Maybe thou shalt find Valimar! Maybe even thou shalt find it! Farewell!”

JRR Tolkien’s languages