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Thread poster: Richard Creech
Translating the Passive Voice

Richard Creech  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 16:11
French to English
+ ...
Feb 26, 2006

I am curious as to how other translators handle the translation of material from languages in which the passive voice is more common than it is in English. I raise this issue having recently completed a Persian to English translation project, and Persian often uses a passive construction when English would use an active one (e.g. "this result is announced" vs. "we announce this result.") My approach has been to transform many passive sentences in the source text into English actives, as a passive often sounds weak or inelegant in English, and many people consider it to be a hallmark of bad writing.

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Graciela Guzman  Identity Verified
Argentina
Local time: 17:11
English to Spanish
+ ...
Avoid it Feb 26, 2006

I avoid the passive voice whenever possible. You can always rephrase so that the text is in the active voice. It's not acceptable in Spanish either.

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xxxMichaelRS
Local time: 22:11
If ... Feb 26, 2006

If a language really uses the passive voice more as a feature of the language, I would think this has to be put into a form that is acceptable (and equivalent) in English.

Otherwise, I don't have a problem with retaining the passive voice if it occurs frequently because the author wants to hide something (who exactly is doing the specified behavior), wants to disperse responsibility for something or wants to take the emphasis off the person who is really carrying out the actions etc.

In the latter case, my idea is that a translation should be as close to the flavor of the original as possible. Ultra-poor writing can be cleaned up a bit, but otherwise the translation should hit someone just like it hits a native reading the original version.


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Ricki Farn
Germany
Local time: 22:11
Member (2005)
English to German
... almost always Feb 26, 2006

This is not translation related, but I wrote my dissertation in English and ended up haggling with the proofreader over every passive sentence. Sometimes, just sometimes, you need the passive voice to preserve word order, to put the connecting or stressed word/phrase at the right end of the sentence - although of course "need" is subjective and may at times be an interference from another language.

I love this web site:
http://nutsandbolts.washcoll.edu/clarity.html

(I have had similar struggles around word order - in German, whatever you want to say first, goes first. In English, it seems that you should try to preserve the order 1. alive, 2. concrete, 3. abstract - I feel that if "the need for translators is greatest in computing and engineering", this is not quite the same as saying that "computing and engineering have the greatest need for translators", because it shifts the focus. But this can lead to never-ending discussions...)

Ricki

[Edited at 2006-02-26 13:45]


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xxxLia Fail  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 22:11
Spanish to English
+ ...
depends on text type Feb 26, 2006

It should depend on target text type. Certain types of writing typically use the passive in EN.

EG scientific writing is impersonal in EN and to use the active (I, we) would be completely erroneous


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Can Altinbay  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:11
Japanese to English
+ ...
Usually, I would render it in active voice. Feb 26, 2006


Lia Fail wrote:

It should depend on target text type. Certain types of writing typically use the passive in EN.

EG scientific writing is impersonal in EN and to use the active (I, we) would be completely erroneous


Yes, in some cases, I would use the passive. But rarely. Scientists still use passive, I think, so I agree with you there. Business writing should be almost entirely in active voice. User documentation for computer applications should also use active voice, but because AT&T was big in the very early days, and their style guide insisted on passive, there are still people who believe that is the way to go. Active voice is more direct, and it is easier to communicate with it. My wife always says "Write to inform, not to impress" (she is a tech. writer) and I agree.


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Peter Bouillon  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 22:11
Member (2005)
French to German
+ ...
Strange... Feb 26, 2006

Richard Creech wrote:

I am curious as to how other translators handle the translation of material from languages in which the passive voice is more common than it is in English.


It is a bit strange to read this from a German vantage point, seeing that the English seem to use the passive rather more than one would in German.

P.


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Ricki Farn
Germany
Local time: 22:11
Member (2005)
English to German
A confused German Feb 26, 2006


Peter Bouillon wrote:

the English seem to use the passive rather more than one would in German.


They do? This is contrary to everything I ever heard at the English department.


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Sonja Tomaskovic  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 22:11
English to German
+ ...
Agree with Peter Feb 26, 2006

At least, that's what I heard all of the time, and it is what I see every day when translating.

Sonja


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John Bowden  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:11
German to English
Depends on context and convention... Feb 27, 2006


Ricki Farn wrote:


Peter Bouillon wrote:

the English seem to use the passive rather more than one would in German.


They do? This is contrary to everything I ever heard at the English department.


There's nothing wrong with using the passive in English when appropriate, and the frequency of use will vary from context to context - for example, in patent descriptions the passive is very commonly used in both English and German, and there is rarely an "active" way of getting round it - the whole point in patents is to emphasise the "impersonal" and "factual", so it would be quite inappropriate to write
" ... you insert the tube and then you turn the blower on.." or something. On the other hand, a description of e.g. a hotel or holiday resort is likely to avoid most of the passives which German is so fond of in tourist brochures: "Auch fürs leibliche Wohl wird bestens gesorgt...", "Gefrühstückt wird in unserem Restaurant in der ersten Etage.." etc. German, and no doubt many other languages, also uses passive constructions in some cases where it is impossible in English: e.g. "Jetzt darf getanzt werden.." (Now it's time to start the dancing.."), "Es darf gelacht werden" when introducing a comedian (almost: "Get ready to have a good laugh.." etc.

As always, the translator has to judge the language appropriate to the context, ensure natural usage and judge how far to depart from the original text - just some of the basic skills the translator always needs!

[Edited at 2006-02-27 11:41]

[Edited at 2006-02-27 13:15]

[Edited at 2006-02-27 14:52]


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John Bowden  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:11
German to English
BBC Text Feb 27, 2006


Richard Creech wrote:

My approach has been to transform many passive sentences in the source text into English actives, as a passive often sounds weak or inelegant in English, and many people consider it to be a hallmark of bad writing.


I don't agree that the passive "often sounds weak or inelegant in English" - it has more to do with the degree of formality and impersonal air amed at. E.g., as a random example, count the passives in this BBC article about the recent £ 50 million robbery: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/kent/4754124.stm

I make it 18 in a relatively short text - most if not all of which could have been rendered as active sentences - so you have to ask yourself why the writer didn't make them active! And does the text read "inelegantly" or " weakly"? [I know that's not necessarily your personal opinion, and you're right that many people do think that way, but, like many other linguistic hobby horses, it has little or no basis in fact!]

[Edited at 2006-02-27 15:02]

[Edited at 2006-02-27 15:54]


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 22:11
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
Change the text to suit the target language Feb 28, 2006


Richard Creech wrote:
I raise this issue having recently completed a Persian to English translation project, and Persian often uses a passive construction when English would use an active one ... My approach has been to transform many passive sentences in the source text into English actives, as a passive often sounds weak or inelegant in English...


I agree that you should change the style of the text to a style which is equivalant in the target language. Do not assume that passive voice in the source language is equivalent to passive voice in the target language. The same applies to the use of tenses. For example, narratives in English written in the past tense, are translated into Afrikaans using the present tense (using the past tense in Afrikaans sounds really, really weird if you're not careful).

There are cases in English where the passive voice is used (in officialese, for example) which doesn't go down well in Afrikaans. In Afrikaans, you'd use the active voice for it. Another example, which is related, is the use of a continuous type of passive voice in English slogans ("Creating a better future for all", "Working smartly is our business", etc) which doesn't work well in Afrikaans. In Afrikaans, one way of dealing with this is to change them to an active, non-continuous voice ("Ons skep 'n beter toekoms vir almal" (We create a better future for all), "Ons werk slim in ons besigheid" (We work smartly in our business)).


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Terry Gilman  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 22:11
Member (2003)
German to English
+ ...
Managing the flow of information Mar 2, 2006

Interesting question, Richard. Thank you for posting it.

My feeling is also that German uses more passive (and impersonal) constructions than English does, at least in business writing. My pet theory is that German shows deference/ politeness by refraining rather more from the active voice and the "you" forms, which make a pushy American impression. I'm intrigued that others see the active-to-passive ratio in German and English the other way around. It's nice being prodded to reconsider something I've taken for granted.

Switching to active is usually a (semi-)conscious decision on my part, not a reflex. For the business texts and charts I work on, however, active voice generally *is* clearer, shorter, and more vigorous. Hence, the "semi-."

The reason I try to think about switching from passive to active is that, along with the text genre and function issues mentioned, another point (also touched on already) is that passive voice exists for multiple reasons, one of which is to help the writer manage the flow of information. To pick readers up where they are and draw them along, you generally need to move from the known to the new. Passive is one mechanism for keeping the flow of information packets moving smoothly off the page/screen and into the reader's mind.

That's pretty abstract, so here's an illustration from an old textbook I have, from the chapter on "Coherence":

quote
Few principles of style are more widely repeated than "use the direct active voice, avoid the weak and indirect passive."

Not
a. A black hole is created by the collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble.

but rather
b. The collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble creates a black hole.

But what if the context for either of those sentences was this:

(1) Some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe have been raised by scientists exploring the nature of black holes in space. (2a/2b) ..... (3) So much matter compressed into so little volume changes the fabric of space around it in profoundly puzzling ways.

Our sense of coherence should tell us that this context calls not for the active voice, but for the passive. And the reasons are not far to seek: The last part of sentence (1) introduces one of the important characters of the story: black holes in space. If we write sentence (2) in the active voice, we cannot mention black holes again until its end, as the object of an active verb. ...
unquote

from "Style - Toward Clarity and Grace" by Joseph M. Williams, The University of Chicago Press. 1981.
ISBN 0-226-89915-2

One can quibble with the above and recast it, but only, I believe, by revising all three sentences and losing some useful rhetorical effects, such as putting words with strong reader appeal at the beginning and end ("astonishing" / "puzzling"), which help pull readers in and motivate them to carry on.

The coherence issue is one of the reasons I like it when Kudoz askers include their term or phrase in its entire paragraph or at least supply the preceding and following sentences.

All the best,
Terry



[Edited at 2006-03-03 11:34]


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Terry Gilman  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 22:11
Member (2003)
German to English
+ ...
PS: Previous post cut off (meanwhile resolved) Mar 2, 2006

Monika has meanwhile helped me solve the problem. Thank you, Monika. I originally used double carets (left and right arrows), which is what caused the problem.



[Edited at 2006-03-03 11:36]


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Tina Vonhof  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:11
Member (2006)
Dutch to English
+ ...
Clarity and grace Mar 3, 2006

Thank you Terry for those wonderful examples - they really clarify the issue.

Translating from Dutch to English I often have to turn passive voice into active voice but from now on I will pay extra care and attention to whether or not that changes the meaning and coherence of the whole paragraph.


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Translating the Passive Voice







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