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Hyphens in English with 3-word compounds?
Thread poster: xxxacross user
xxxacross user
Germany
Local time: 19:36
Nov 7, 2016

Hello all,

Before asking my question, please let me clarify something: I hope avoiding any comments on the fact that a non-native speaker of English is asking about technical terms in English. I would like a solution to my question and not get comments on how scandalous it is that non-natives are asking about things only a native speaker could really know. I know myself that this is a big problem but I had no choice – so I ask you to please not take this out on me.

I´m forced to do German-English translations for my boss (my mother tongue is German). I tried convincing him that it would definitely be better to have an English native speaker translate these texts but I wasn´t successful (and to make things even better, the texts are very, very technical). I told him that I couldn´t guarantee for the correctness of the texts but he told me I should translate it as good as I could and that it will surely work out somehow. How soothing…

My problem now (besides the fact that I can´t be sure using the correct EN technical expressions) is that I don´t know when/ how to use the hyphen with EN compound words. I looked it up on several websites but they didn´t provide a solution that helped me. They all explain that in some cases, EN compound nouns should be written with a hyphen in order to avoid confusion (great uncle/ great-uncle) but I found nothing that explained in a satisfying way how to deal with compounds composed of 3 or more words. One example from my text is the word "machine-supply pump" – or would I have to write "machine supply pump"? My feeling is that in this case it´s not absolutely necessary to insert a hyphen since the meaning of the word is clear with and without hyphen.

But the term I´m really having problems with is “automatic disposal unit” (or “automatic-disposal unit”?). The term means that the waste disposal is done automatically (the waste the machine produces goes into a barrel and when the barrel is full, a light indicates that the barrel has to be changed. The full barrel can be picked up directly by the recycling company (meaning the waste does not have to be transferred into another container)). Do I have to use a hyphen with this expression or not? When thinking about different meanings of this expression depending on the use of a hyphen, I´m not sure if it can have different meanings at all... And if it didn´t have different meanings with/ without hyphen, then it wouldn´t make sense to insert one, don´t you think?

Thank you in advance for your replies and for holding back with any nasty comments – I´m well aware of the problem and unhappy with it enough as it is.

Thanks!


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Agneta Pallinder  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 18:36
Member (2014)
Swedish to English
+ ...
automatic disposal unit Nov 7, 2016

I wouldn't use any hyphens here. Actually, if you google "automatic disposal unit" you will find many examples of just this combination, hyphen-less.

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cocannon
United States
Local time: 10:36
Hyphens are used with compound adjectives Nov 7, 2016

If I recall the rule correctly, the hyphens in English are used when the descriptive term itself is compound and appears before a noun:

well-known author.
chocolate-covered peanuts.
(Examples from Purdue Owl: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/576/01/)

The hyphens are not necessary in order to modify a noun using multiple simple descriptions, like "automatic disposal unit".

Hope this helps!


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Chris S  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Member (2011)
Swedish to English
+ ...
Depends Nov 7, 2016

Americans tend not to use hyphens at all. Brits tend to use them when they feel like it. There are no rules. I use hyphens only to avoid ambiguity. It is impossible to be consistent. Like commas, if you think about them too much they will drive you mad. In your examples there is no need for hyphens.

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John Fossey  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 13:36
Member (2008)
French to English
For clarification Nov 8, 2016

In general, hyphens are used to clarify the meaning of compound adjectives. A good (if rather complex) discussion on the subject is given at http://www.economist.com/style-guide/hyphens.

So in your example, there is no confusion as to the meaning of "automatic disposal unit" so I would leave it unhyphenated.

The link above gives examples such as differing between a "third-world war" (a war in the third world) and the "third world war" (after the first and second world wars).

Another example I come across in my work is the difference between "free trade" and "free-trade agreement". In the first, "free" is the adjective of "trade" which is a noun. In the second, "free-trade" is a compound adjective for the noun "agreement". To be entirely technical, it could be said that a "free trade agreement", with no hyphens, refers to a "trade agreement" that is "free".

On the other hand, there is an increasing trend to eliminate hyphens as much as possible, depending on the context for clarification. As mentioned above, there are no rules. The Economist link above quotes the Oxford University Press style manual: “If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad.”

[Edited at 2016-11-08 15:02 GMT]


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Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 19:36
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Exactly Nov 8, 2016

cocannon wrote:
If I recall the rule correctly, the hyphens in English are used when the descriptive term itself is compound and appears before a noun.

This is how they taught me too... Compounding would not use hyphens unless one of the members of the compound is to be taken as one word (e.g. "bug-ridden continental quilt covers" or "a total-my-car-again-and-I-kill-you kind of stare"). If the compound is made up of a series of nouns adjectivating each other in sequence, then no hyphens at all (e.g. "thin sheet cutting device protection layer solvent cans")


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Jenny Forbes  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:36
Member (2006)
French to English
+ ...
I agree with Tomás and John Nov 8, 2016

Their explanation is perfect, I think.
When the "string" of words is used as an adjective and precedes a noun, then hyphenate that string of words.
A somewhat informal example:
Le Salaire de la Peur is an edge-of-seat movie.
That is to say, a film which is so suspenseful that it keeps you on the edge of your seat.


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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 18:36
Member (2008)
Italian to English
I agree... Nov 8, 2016

across user wrote:

.....
I´m forced to do German-English translations for my boss (my mother tongue is German). I tried convincing him that it would definitely be better to have an English native speaker translate these texts ...


You need a new boss.

One-suggestion-would-be-that-you-do-deliberately-bad-translations-so-that-your-boss-stops-this-nonsense.

Another more serious suggestion:

The next time your boss asks you to translate something into English, find a kind German-to English (native) Prozian colleague to help you by translating the same document in parallel with you, working "blind" i.e. not seeing your translation.

Then give both translations to your boss and see what happens.



[Edited at 2016-11-08 11:24 GMT]


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Lingua 5B  Identity Verified
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Local time: 19:36
English to Croatian
+ ...
The boss is German? Nov 8, 2016

Tom in London wrote:

across user wrote:

.....
I´m forced to do German-English translations for my boss (my mother tongue is German). I tried convincing him that it would definitely be better to have an English native speaker translate these texts ...


You need a new boss.

One-suggestion-would-be-that-you-do-deliberately-bad-translations-so-that-your-boss-stops-this-nonsense.

Another more serious suggestion:

The next time your boss asks you to translate something into English, find a kind German-to English (native) Prozian colleague to help you by translating the same document in parallel with you, working "blind" i.e. not seeing your translation.

Then give both translations to your boss and see what happens.



[Edited at 2016-11-08 11:24 GMT]


Not sure why, but I thought her boss was German? If there are subtle differences, I guess you wanted to point out they would be pretty obvious to a native speaker?

Unless the boss is a native English speaker, not sure how the test you suggested may be relevant?


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philgoddard
United States
Member (2009)
German to English
+ ...
I don't like your boss either... Nov 8, 2016

But your English is extremely good. Just don't tell him I said so!

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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 18:36
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Not sure Nov 8, 2016

Lingua 5B wrote:

Not sure why, but I thought her boss was German? If there are subtle differences, I guess you wanted to point out they would be pretty obvious to a native speaker?

Unless the boss is a native English speaker, not sure how the test you suggested may be relevant?


You're not sure about two things:

1. Whether "her" (I presume you mean Agneta) boss is German. I thought that was quite clear.

2. How the test I suggested may be relevant. Perhaps I did not make myself clear. In my experience most Germans, to their credit, have a good understanding of ordinary English, though perhaps not of highly technical language. Assuming that I am correct in this assumption, Agneta's boss would be able to see the difference between the two translations.


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Chris S  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Member (2011)
Swedish to English
+ ...
Er Nov 8, 2016

Tom in London wrote:

Lingua 5B wrote:

Not sure why, but I thought her boss was German? If there are subtle differences, I guess you wanted to point out they would be pretty obvious to a native speaker?

Unless the boss is a native English speaker, not sure how the test you suggested may be relevant?


You're not sure about two things:

1. Whether "her" (I presume you mean Agneta) boss is German. I thought that was quite clear.

2. How the test I suggested may be relevant. Perhaps I did not make myself clear. In my experience most Germans, to their credit, have a good understanding of ordinary English, though perhaps not of highly technical language. Assuming that I am correct in this assumption, Agneta's boss would be able to see the difference between the two translations.


1. Agneta is not the OP...

2. Wouldn't that require the OP's boss to have an exceptional grasp of English, in which case she or he would have noticed the flaws in previous translations?


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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 18:36
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Better, not worse Nov 8, 2016

Chris S wrote:

Wouldn't that require the OP's boss to have an exceptional grasp of English, in which case she or he would have noticed the flaws in previous translations?



Possibly. What's your suggestion for helping the OP to deal with this problem?

[Edited at 2016-11-08 15:02 GMT]


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Chris S  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Member (2011)
Swedish to English
+ ...
Again? Nov 8, 2016

Tom in London wrote:

Possibly. What's your suggestion for helping the OP to deal with this problem?


What, beyond my advice above in response to the question actually asked by the OP?


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xxxacross user
Germany
Local time: 19:36
TOPIC STARTER
Major problem:I´m not a technician and not a native speaker Nov 9, 2016

Hello all,

First of all, thank you for your suggestions – I already assumed that the problem may not necessarily be me but the hyphen subject itself.

I think I will leave it without hyphen since the explanation that a hyphen only makes sense when the expression is ambiguous seems logical to me.

As for Tom´s suggestion: Lingua 5B, yes, my boss is German, but I think even she might notice a difference in translations I did vs. translations a native speaker who has deep knowledge of the subject did. The texts I´m translating are quite technical and contain a lot of technical expressions that can´t be found in any dictionary or online since it´s stuff that the firm invented and therefore has a name that even in German is unique. So I had to “invent” EN translations for them. And how can I be sure they´re correct if my mother tongue isn´t EN and (caution, another big surprise is coming…) if I´m not even a technical translator for EN (originally, I´ve studied interpretation for FR and PT with a specialization in German law, but I haven´t worked in this business for years)?

So I think that if a native EN speaker with more technical knowledge and with a solid education and experience in the translation business would certainly do a much better job than I am – for example, she just needs to have a look at the length of the translations. There are some expressions where I simply couldn´t find a translation (and I´m too ashamed to ask these questions in a forum to be honest, because I don´t want or need all the comments that would surely be made then. As mentioned, I´m unhappy enough as it is and I don´t need any more bashing), and for these expressions I decided to paraphrase them in English. You can imagine that the length of my EN translations sometimes is a lot longer than the source text.

Since I know at least a little bit about translations I foresaw all these problems and told them to my boss but she wouldn´t listen. Now she has to cope with what I´m providing. I try to do the translations as good as I can but even I can see that sometimes I making mistakes but I don´t know how to do it correctly (concerns mostly the above mentioned technical expressions).

And Tom, doing the translations badly is something I wouldn´t be able to justify in front of myself because I still have some pride as someone coming from the language business And even if I did – the already existing part translation of the texts is really bad (even I can see that) and when I pointed that out to her, she proposed could correct them and translate the rest.

And I think, too, as mentioned by some of you, the problem is not “general” EN. As you said, many Germans have a solid grasp of “general” EN which enables them to communicate on a basic level and get through most conversations/ understand most of what´s being written or said (that´s my impression at least). But this whole thing is a matter of translation and not just the language itself.

I try to keep updated on what´s going on in all my languages and I try to learn something new every day. But that doesn´t make me a native speaker and that doesn´t make me a technical expert.

P.S.: My name is Anja and my boss is female, too


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