Translate in active or passive tense
Thread poster: gdesai
gdesai  Identity Verified
Local time: 02:47
German to English
Nov 11, 2008

I am a DE>EN translator so I can speak only for this language pair.
In one of his essays, George Orwell wrote that English is best written in short sentences in active tense.
Instruction/operation manuals, etc. in German invariably have long sentences and are in passive tense.
The question that arises for a translator like me is: Should I translate in active tense with short sentences which is the proper way of writing in English language or remain true to the source text and translate in long sentences in passive tense.
Comments are most welcome.


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Reed James
Chile
Local time: 18:17
Member (2005)
Spanish to English
Follow your gut feeling Nov 11, 2008

gdesai wrote:

I am a DE>EN translator so I can speak only for this language pair.
In one of his essays, George Orwell wrote that English is best written in short sentences in active tense.
Instruction/operation manuals, etc. in German invariably have long sentences and are in passive tense.
The question that arises for a translator like me is: Should I translate in active tense with short sentences which is the proper way of writing in English language or remain true to the source text and translate in long sentences in passive tense.
Comments are most welcome.


You will find English sentences that are very long and English sentences that are very short. You will find English filled with passive sentences and English filled with active sentences. Mona Baker in "In Other Words" shows the translator a neat little trick for converting the passive voice into the active voice. Any time you can guess the agent (person or thing that performed the action), you can make the passive sentence active.
 
Here is an example:
 
The test tubes that had red dye in them and were prone to boiling over were monitored.
 
Assuming this sentence is in the source language, you might notice that it is uncomfortable to put the verb way at the end of the sentence when translating it into English. So an alternative would be to deduce that scientists or lab technicians are responsible for monitoring the test tubes.
 
I would say:
 
Lab technicians monitored the test tubes that had red dye in them and were prone to boiling over.


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Spencer Allman
United Kingdom
Local time: 22:17
Finnish to English
Ignore Orwell Nov 11, 2008

George Orwell's famous set of reccommendations for writing English is linguistically unsound. Great writer he may have been, but his maxims are daft.

English is fond of the passive in a variety of genres, styles and contexts. It is favoured in technical English too. Along with intransitive verbs, which cannot take a pssive form.

A healthy balance of long and short sentences is often looked on positively.

cheers

spencer


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Siegfried Armbruster  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 23:17
Member (2004)
English to German
+ ...
Use the styleguide Nov 11, 2008

I would expect a "P" pro to follow the instructions given in the customer styleguide. If no styleguide exists, I would ask for it.

Siegfried

[Edited at 2008-11-11 11:57]


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Paul Merriam  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:17
Member (2008)
Russian to English
+ ...
No need to mimic Nov 11, 2008

There are a lot of differences between English style and German style. One of these, as you indicated, is an English preference for the active voice. You are not bound by the voice used in the German text. If active makes better English style, use it. Another difference in German style vs. English style is the frequent use of nouns in German and verbs in English. Example: Die Durchführung des Vorgangs erfolgte mittels ... would come out in English as The process was done using ... or [Whatever it was] was used to perform the process.

If your customer has a style guide, you should follow it. However, many customers have no such guide and, even if they do, it may not address such issues.


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Paula James  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 23:17
French to English
+ ...
Orwell was just a writer Nov 11, 2008

Orwell had particular ideas on writing, and many people endorse his style, but he is not an authority on the "proper way of writing" in English. In my opinion, the passive tense is perfectly acceptable in many circumstances in English (despite the MS word spellcheck!). Many very respected writers use long, passive sentences - yes, they can be harder to read sometimes, but it not all writing necessarily needs to be easy to read, and sometimes trying to avoid a passive can make things more difficult, and short sentences can seem disjointed.
As Siegfried says, this can be found in a style manual for the genre, or if not, look at writing samples for the type of text to see what the standard is.
There are no hard and fast rules for most things in English.

ETA: I forgot to say that too, that you do not need to use the same structure as the source, I don't work from German, but always using the source structure would lead to unintelligible sentences for me.

[Edited at 2008-11-11 13:49]


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Cagdas Karatas  Identity Verified
Turkey
Local time: 00:17
English to Turkish
Highly relevant topic Nov 11, 2008

I think this has been one of the primary issues about writing in English for translators. I'm pretty sure that various linguistic authorities or English authors, speakers, etc. would have varying opinions regarding it, but I can recommend something I learnt from my personal experience in the industry. No matter in what field you are translating, your motto should be "I shall aim for active yet save the passive."

In one of our discussions with one of my employers (he's a linguist and editor), I asserted complainingly, "This legal language cannot be polished up. Lots of long-winged sentences and archaic words, mostly used in passive constructions," and he replied, "You're wrong. Every text written in English or any other language can be polished up and we, translators, should always have our sights in the better. Avoiding passive as much as possible is one of the things you can start with..." I was not quite convinced because I loved the passive and I felt as if he had insulted one of my untouchables. However, he clarified his point afterwards and now it is one of my guiding principles in using English, which is, customers in our industry (modern times) would like to hear as many active and brief sentences as possible. I try to avoid using passive as far as it's practicable but never murder the passive and my customers/employers are far more satisfied with the services I provide now. I hope this was clear enough.

Enjoy the language!


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GoodWords  Identity Verified
Mexico
Local time: 16:17
Spanish to English
+ ...
Modern advice about the passive Nov 11, 2008

Over the years, there has been a lot of poor advice given about good writing in English. To counteract it, I recommend one of the best sources of sensible modern information about English grammar and style: Language Log.

Here are some Language Log articles about the passive:


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Cagdas Karatas  Identity Verified
Turkey
Local time: 00:17
English to Turkish
I appreciate it Nov 11, 2008

GoodWords wrote:

Over the years, there has been a lot of poor advice given about good writing in English. To counteract it, I recommend one of the best sources of sensible modern information about English grammar and style: Language Log.

Here are some Language Log articles about the passive:



Thank you for your wonderful post, Margaret.


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Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 23:17
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
The daftest job I ever refused to do... Nov 12, 2008

... was for a client who sent me a piece of excellent English for proofing: it was a product description and instructions for use.
They wanted the active voice throughout, and it was quite impossible.

Sometimes the alternative to the passive is 'one' or 'you', and this can result in some clumsy constructions.

The passive is on occasions an excellent way of avoiding the he/she dilemma when the subject is singular and cannot simply be made plural. I run into this regularly, because Danish, like so many other languages, has gender-neutral singular pronouns, e.g. reflexives and a possessive that means his/her/its all in one.

I often find that a passive is actually shorter and neater than the active version.

Microsoft's grammar checker used to be very anti-passive, and the agencies I worked for regularly received complaints from clients like the one above, who checked a text and found almost every sentence was underlined in green. We laughed and cried in frustration, but I am a great believer in the passive in its proper place.

The big rule in English is that pedantry is something that should not be tolerated.
--- or up with which you should not put

Train your ear and trust it!



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Richard Bartholomew  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 23:17
Member (2007)
German to English
Dealing with the passive voice Nov 12, 2008

Reed D. James wrote:

Lab technicians monitored the test tubes that had red dye in them and were prone to boiling over.


Guessing the actor is a very tempting thing to do. I avoid doing it because I would be assuming that I have information that I don't, in fact, have. For example, if it turned out that the latest in artificially intelligent laboratory robots monitored the test tubes, then you would "in der Tinte sitzen" to put it politely.

On the other hand, I do try to translate German passive into the English active voice whenever I can get away with it (assuming that makes it sounds better). I did the same when I was editing English language technical documents as a software engineer. American engineers and programmers rival their German counterparts when it comes to run-on sentences and abuse of the passive voice.

I believe it was Gerald M. Weinberg, in his book "The Psychology of Computer Programming", who identified documentation as "the castor oil of programming". It may be Lebertran on the German side, but it results in the same terrible documentation practices.


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xxxVerse 5B
Local time: 23:17
English to Serbian
+ ...
a comment Nov 14, 2008

On the contrary, English is a passive - voice oriented language.

Btw, passive and active are grammatical Voice, not grammatical Tense. You have confused linguistic categories. Either you, or Mr Orwell, not sure which.


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David Sirett
Local time: 23:17
French to English
+ ...
Avoid guessing the actor (and avoid Mona Baker tips?) Nov 14, 2008

Richard Bartholomew wrote:

Lab technicians monitored the test tubes that had red dye in them and were prone to boiling over.


Guessing the actor is a very tempting thing to do. I avoid doing it because I would be assuming that I have information that I don't, in fact, have. For example, if it turned out that the latest in artificially intelligent laboratory robots monitored the test tubes, then you would "in der Tinte sitzen" to put it politely.
[/quote]

Agreed. And my relatively limited exposure to Mona Baker's works, as well as the quoted example, would make me avoid her advice on practical aspects of translation!

David


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gdesai  Identity Verified
Local time: 02:47
German to English
TOPIC STARTER
Interesting discussion Nov 18, 2008

Little did I imagine my query would result in such a response.
Thank you all for your opinion that I highly value and thank you 'GoodWords' for pointing out this very interesting website. It has now become my daily stop.
All in all, I will play it by the ear and make active tense with short sentences my guiding star!
Once again, thank you all.


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