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How best to deal with officialese?
Thread poster: Phoebe Indetzki

Phoebe Indetzki  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:44
German to English
+ ...
Nov 25, 2013

I'm in somewhat of a quandary.

I'm currently translating rather a long document for an NGO. It's written in true "Beamtendeutsch" - the Germans being unrivalled in the art of officialese...

The average sentence is 4-5 lines, and 45 - 50 words long - with huge smatterings of compound words in typical German style.

I've lived in Germany for the past 20 years, and can pass as a native speaker here, but even so, I'm having to read every sentence several times to understand what it's trying to say.

So here's my dilemma... what sort of translation should I be aiming for? One in which a native English speaker is also forced to read each sentence three times in order to understand it? Or one that can be easily understood on a first reading?

Love to hear your thoughts on this or how other translators deal with such cases!


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philgoddard
United States
German to English
+ ...
The latter. Nov 25, 2013

You should never adopt a "garbage in, garbage out" approach to translation. Your job is to produce a well written document every time. If that means breaking down sentences into shorter units and replacing unnecessary jargon with plain English, that's what you should do.

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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 06:44
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
This is not a literary translation, so... Nov 25, 2013

Phoebe Ruth wrote:
One in which a native English speaker is also forced to read each sentence three times in order to understand it? Or one that can be easily understood on a first reading?


This is not a literary translation, so you don't need to mimic the style of the original author. You know what the target audience of this piece is as well as the purpose of the piece, so translate it in a way that fulfills those criteria best. You are not required to produce a poor-looking translation simply because the original author wrote a poorly written source text.


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Kirsten Bodart  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 06:44
Dutch to English
+ ...
I know the feeling Nov 25, 2013

If you're not dealing with a really formal text in English where the sentences are naturally longer, you are free to split sentences, re-arrange them and make the target read like an English one. There is no point, as Phil said, to just copy sentence by sentence exactly. That would be murder.

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Roy OConnor
Local time: 06:44
Member (2009)
German to English
Basically, the shorter, the better Nov 25, 2013

I agree with Phil, because the natural German style is not natural in English. Native German speakers often become "trapped" into the habit of writing in convoluted sentences which "sound better".

On receiving a translation from me which was much shorter than his original, one German author altered his source text in the same way, because he realised there was such a lot of padding in it!

You have to be careful though that you are not trapped in the same way when writing English.


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Phoebe Indetzki  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:44
German to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Yes, but... Nov 25, 2013

In this case, "garbage in, garbage out" is not the issue for me. I think what I'm trying to get at is this: to what extent should one simplify a translation?

Is it reasonable or unreasonable, in such documents, to expect people to sometimes have to read a sentence twice in order to understand it?

In other words, is "well-written" always synonymous with "instantly comprehensible"?


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finnword1
United States
Local time: 00:44
English to Finnish
+ ...
long words Nov 25, 2013

Chopping the compound words like Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz, and rearranging the pieces might be a good start.

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John Fossey  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 00:44
Member (2008)
French to English
Where accuracy is paramount Nov 25, 2013

philgoddard wrote:

You should never adopt a "garbage in, garbage out" approach to translation. Your job is to produce a well written document every time. If that means breaking down sentences into shorter units and replacing unnecessary jargon with plain English, that's what you should do.


Not necessarily. I once observed a document where such an "easier-to-read" rendering, breaking up a paragraph-length sentence into shorter sentences, had a disastrous effect on the end client - unknown to the translator it was a document to lawmakers in parliament and with the original long sentence broken up they were able to take one sentence of the translated paragraph and ignore the others, completely changing the intended effect.

The translator's job is to faithfully transfer from the source to the target. There may well be a reason why jargon is there, so before the translator remanufactures the style and register he or she had better know what is needed. In official documents there is often a history and reason behind "jargon" and the officialese may not be "unnecessary".

If we are talking about documents where the meaning must be precisely transferred, such as legal documents, contracts, medical reports, etc., it makes no difference how many times the reader has to read it, as long as the meaning is conveyed accurately.


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Texte Style
Local time: 06:44
French to English
Who is your target audience? Nov 25, 2013

Who is this document going to be sent to? If it's British civil servants, the counterparts of the author, officialspeak would probably make them feel quite comfy.

If it's a handful of British businessmen wanting to get to grips with German officialdom in order to set up a joint-venture with a handful of Germans, then I would apply Sheila's KISS (keep it simple, stupid) and my Cut the Cr@p, with just a soupçon of officialspeak here and there so they realise who wrote the thing

If it's to go on a website for the general public, then KISS (keep it simple, stupid) and my Cut the Cr@p all the way along the line.


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Łukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz  Identity Verified
Poland
Local time: 06:44
English to Polish
+ ...
... Nov 25, 2013

Phoebe Ruth wrote:

So here's my dilemma... what sort of translation should I be aiming for? One in which a native English speaker is also forced to read each sentence three times in order to understand it? Or one that can be easily understood on a first reading?


Ha. Well, when translating from Polish into English I tend to use a clearer structure and better connecting devices, optimised logical operators and so on, to a point at which the good flow might sound a little artificial (as in it's obvious it was written like that on purpose) or conversational (almost like the old scholastic structure of argumentation translated from Latin).

On the other hand, my job is to translate between Polish and English. Neither simple language (let alone simplification) nor understanding are essential parts of the job. My job is most certainly not to replace the reader's going to law school or admin studies if that's what it would take to understand the source text in the source language. When you translate an academic article about quantum physics, you don't aim to make them understandable to a plumber or English teacher, right? The reader's lack of the requisite knowledge about quantum physics is not your problem.

By way of exception, purely stylistic devices can certainly be replaced with something simpler or even entirely omitted, though, and perhaps sometimes should. However, still, German authorities are not bound e.g. by simple language directives coming from 10 Downing Street or a UE style book or some sort of White House initiative. There may be need to translate their rulings into English, but they are just simply not parts of any English-native legal system. Nor is it necessarily a good idea to depart from the source so much as to axe the adornments.

And so, for example, a French-style court judgment will be a huge single sentence, likely to contain a whole bunch of adverbial clauses like an international treaty (the 'whereases') and the opinion will be written in the third person, as pretty much the opposite of how common-law courts approach the matter (different headers, more emphasis on the parties there perhaps, a first-person opinion, have to fish out the holding from the surrounding obiter by careful reading etc.). You could rearrange all that according to the other custom, but it wouldn't be a good idea to do so.

Phoebe Ruth wrote:

In this case, "garbage in, garbage out" is not the issue for me. I think what I'm trying to get at is this: to what extent should one simplify a translation?


I'd say primarily to the extent agreed in the contract because what you need here is pretty much some sort of specification of an editing assigment. Having an agreement with the client which specifies some goals for you removes the problem of potentially following a bad methodology in selecting your own goals for the translation process.

[Edited at 2013-11-25 21:44 GMT]


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 13:44
Chinese to English
Avoid bad English; allow complex English Nov 26, 2013

I think the real issue here is not the length or complexity of the sentences, it's the likelihood of bad English.

If you manage to produce a good translation, where you capture every bit of meaning in the original text, in punchy, short English, then it's very hard to imagine anyone complaining. Similarly, if you produce a good translation in English that is rather complex and difficult, but captures all the meaning perfectly, then you've done a good job. Readers might complain, but you would be justified in saying, "The source is very hard to read, so this is accurate." Either of those results would be good.

The problem comes when a translator tries to reproduce source text style effects by copying the source text style. What you end up with is just bad English. If you want to write an abstruse target version, you have to write it in abstruse *English*, not just copy over the abstruse *German* style.

I agree with Samuel's point - as this is not a literary translation, the style itself doesn't carry salient information. In your situation, I ignore style and translate for perfect accuracy only. Ignoring style means I don't have to worry about breaking up any target sentences that do end up being long and difficult; but I certainly don't go out of my way to increase the level of difficulty in the target text.


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Łukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz  Identity Verified
Poland
Local time: 06:44
English to Polish
+ ...
... Nov 26, 2013

Phil Hand wrote:

If you want to write an abstruse target version, you have to write it in abstruse *English*, not just copy over the abstruse *German* style.


Yup.

I agree with Samuel's point - as this is not a literary translation, the style itself doesn't carry salient information. In your situation, I ignore style and translate for perfect accuracy only. Ignoring style means I don't have to worry about breaking up any target sentences that do end up being long and difficult; but I certainly don't go out of my way to increase the level of difficulty in the target text.


Actually, style does contain important information. It gives you a read on the official, you can probe his attitude, this gives you some clues that are relevant in appealing. I always pick up hints like that, and they let me know whether someone's biased or uses more complex language that he can handle or tries to sound more important than his position would warrant, or in some cases I can tell what exactly he's mixed up in his theory, which relevant ontological or epistemic categories he struggles with, all of which finds some reflection in appellate grounds referring to how facts or points of law were (mis)handled in the decision. I'm not sure to what extent this ultimately matters in the end, but in the beginning it surely feels useful.

[Edited at 2013-11-26 04:07 GMT]


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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 05:44
Member (2008)
Italian to English
I get quite a lot of this too Nov 26, 2013

I get quite a lot of this too, in the Italian equivalent of your German "officialese" and let me assure you that when it comes to opaque, bureaucratic text, nobody can beat the Italians!

Faced with such a text, I set myself the task of making sure that the translation is rigorously faithful to the meaning, allusions, and nuances of the original, whilst rendering it in a version of the English language that has equivalence with the officialese of the original. This usually entails deconstructing very long sentences, rearranging them, and quite often splitting them into several shorter sentences. Sometimes I move an entire block of text to a different place! Another problem is the lack of consistency: using many different terms for exactly the same thing. In a recent job I found at least 20 different ways for Italian bureaucrats to say "disabled WC"!

As a UK resident and taxpayer, I'm fairly familiar with a range of official documents that use dry bureaucratic language (of which the HMRC website is one good example). I adopt a similar idiom. The one advantage here in the UK is that many official texts are tested for clarity and their use of "Plain English" and as a result, there is a trend here in this multilingual, multicultural country to make bureaucratic documents as plain and simple as possible.

Here's an interesting article about it: http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/news/943-plain-english-and-the-hmrc.html (although I would take issue with the anything-but-plain English used in the article!)

So in my view it's not only OK to simplify and clarify bureaucratic language when translating it; it's obligatory to do so - with the proviso that the meaning must not change or be "embroidered".

[Edited at 2013-11-26 08:50 GMT]


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Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 06:44
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
Do you know Ernest Gowers? Nov 26, 2013

He is the original author of writings collected under the title 'The Complete Plain Words'. It originally dates back to the 1940s and 50s, so it has been revised by others, but the principle is the same.

Don't write officialese for the sake of it, and write for your target audience. This is not talking down to people. It is simply writing a text that is fit for purpose. I too have been thanked now and then by people who have gone back and altered their original text after seeing the translation.

I sometimes get the same problem in Danish legalese - there is a perfectly legitimate construction which many Danes have to read a couple of times, but lawyers are used to it and it works in Danish.

I often end up breaking the sentence into two or three in English. The Danish equivalent of 'however' is used as a conjunction, which it is not in English. It is just not possible to include all the (grammatical) clauses in one comprehensible English sentence.

Once I did a more or less literary translation - an essay on an art collection - under pressure of time, and I retained a lot of the very convoluted sentences to try and reproduce the style of the original. (And because I did not have time to sleep on it and revise it adequately.)

The Danish proofreader was delighted with it, which worried me immediately... but by then it was too late. I always wish I had been bold enough to recreate the text as more natural English, because it spoils what would have been a very attractive book. It is beautifully illustrated and trilingual - and I suspect the German translator had the same problem as I did. I can only read it because I can read the Danish.
_____________________

If you are writing a text for a purpose, not just as padding round illustrations to celebrate a jubilee, then you should write clearly and correctly.

Style takes second place.


[Edited at 2013-11-26 10:15 GMT]


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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 05:44
Member (2008)
Italian to English
I agree with Christine.... Nov 26, 2013

..."official" language is written to have legal meaning; but alas, this can often make it meaningless for the person affected by it.

My own "Bible" is George Orwell's famous essay on language and politics, here:

http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit

[Edited at 2013-11-26 09:11 GMT]


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