A definition in a technical standard is ambiguous
Thread poster: Gennady Lapardin

Gennady Lapardin  Identity Verified
Russian Federation
Local time: 12:24
Italian to Russian
+ ...
Nov 26, 2010

An engineering standard that I am reading now says in the definitions of the verbs 'shall', 'should', 'may' and 'can', which occur in the document, that ""may" is verbal form used to indicate a course of action permissible within the limits of the standard".
OK, it's very clear 'permissible course of action'. In the body of the document there are lot of provisions of what people and companies concerned may or may not do.
However, there are also many other provisions about what loads and fluids and materials may do (they may affect, may cause, may get in an undesirible contact, may be required, and so on) and no provision of what they may not do.
And here is my question: is the above definition of the verb "may" good in English as applied to the cases of natural action?
No matter which problem the translator faces (in Russian, the verbs 'may' and 'can' denote generally the same modality, except in legal papers) when translating phrases like "a tsunami may happen" strictly to the above definition of a Company standard.


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Anne Walseth  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:24
English to Norwegian
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Imperative or not Nov 26, 2010

In medical texts, I would translate the words "shall" and "should" as imperatives - there is no alternative, acceptable action. The word "may" and "can" are - as you say - permissible (or possible) courses of action. I see "may not" as equally imperative, similar to "must not".
However, when it comes to the effect of e.g. fluids or materials, the word "may" would refer to a possible effect/side effect that will not necessarily take place, but is possible.
I hope I did not completely misunderstand your question, and that this was helpful!


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Soonthon LUPKITARO(Ph.D.)  Identity Verified
Thailand
Local time: 16:24
Member (2004)
English to Thai
+ ...
In software manual source texts Nov 27, 2010

I also met with these words in software manual translation. I usually emphasize on imperative mood but take no serious for "can" and "may." The cultural background of the target language is likely to play a big role.

Soonthon Lupkitaro


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Gennady Lapardin  Identity Verified
Russian Federation
Local time: 12:24
Italian to Russian
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
The word 'possible' makes the difference Nov 27, 2010

Anne Walseth wrote:

The word "may" and "can" are - as you say - permissible (or possible) courses of action.


Thank you, Anne

[Edited at 2010-11-27 00:55 GMT]


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James McVay  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 04:24
Russian to English
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Gennady is righty Nov 28, 2010

(Sorry -- couldn't resist that.)

But I'll expand on his answer a bit. The "may" in the definition refers to action that is permissible and refers to something that a human can influence.

The "may" that's used "about what loads and fluids and materials may do (they may affect, may cause, may get in an undesirible contact, may be required, and so on)" probably connotes "possibility" or anticipated behavior, that is, something that a human wouldn't necessarily cause -- although it's hard to be sure without seeing the original, of course. You might think about using some form of "возможно" to indicate that.

But why not provide some context and ask a KudoZ question if you want to be sure?


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Gennady Lapardin  Identity Verified
Russian Federation
Local time: 12:24
Italian to Russian
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TOPIC STARTER
Context: specific definition of the verb "may" in an engineering standard Nov 28, 2010

Thank you, James, for reply.
Generally and by an old-fashioned tradition, people is used to construe the standards as something that should be strictly followed, and any word, which is specifically defined in it, becomes a mandatory term.
In this case, the author, after having inserted this definition, should have the whole text re-checked for possible unmatched occurences of "may" with their replacement.
In this case, for instance, 'the loads that may affect the structure' are not quite the same as 'permissible loads', but using the above definition, you may construe as 'the loads that are permitted (allowed) to affect'.
It's about the quality of the original text, and about what and how may be used as a definition. As Soonthon and Anne confirm, this is quite normal for translator to struggle through such "definitions".

James McVay wrote:
But why not provide some context and ask a KudoZ question if you want to be sure?


Do you think it's kudoz-able?


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Katalin Horváth McClure  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 04:24
Member (2002)
English to Hungarian
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Modal verbs Nov 29, 2010

Here is a summary table about these modal verbs.
For "may" it lists two types of usage:
Asking for permission
Future possibility

http://www.learnenglish.de/grammar/verbmodal.htm

So, you are right, it seems the definition the author of your text created is only half of the story...


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Gennady Lapardin  Identity Verified
Russian Federation
Local time: 12:24
Italian to Russian
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Few quotations from on-line technical style guides Nov 29, 2010

I'd suggest to the author of the definition (modal verb definition!!) to read one of countless technical writing style guides on the web ( just to start, http://tinyurl.com/38n85me
Science and technical writing: a manual of style by Philip Rubens).
And would like to quote another style guide: http://www010.upp.so-net.ne.jp/Tech-Com/docs/modality.htm#Article%203
Sub-chapter: Handling ambiguous situations
"The following tables list all the degrees of possibility and certainty. For each degree of possibility, two sentence forms are proposed, one where the subject is a person or thing ("This experiment will result in Ѓc") and one where the subject is a fact--a noun clause--("That a wide deviation occurred in the results of this experiment is probably due toЃc").
...If the percentages are known with some accuracy by the writer, use them rather than the modal verbs and modal adverbs." And never try to define modality


Katalin Horvath McClure wrote:

Here is a summary table about these modal verbs.
For "may" it lists two types of usage:
Asking for permission
Future possibility

http://www.learnenglish.de/grammar/verbmodal.htm

So, you are right, it seems the definition the author of your text created is only half of the story...


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MollyRose  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 03:24
Member (2010)
English to Spanish
+ ...
might vs. may Apr 5, 2011

However, there are also many other provisions about what loads and fluids and materials may do (they may affect, may cause, may get in an undesirible contact, may be required, and so on)

I understand "may" as giving permission--usually to an animate being who has a will and can choose whether or not to do (whatever). To me, the usage of "may" in the above type of context is wrong, even though it is very common. I believe "might" is the proper word, because it deals more with possibility rather than permission. More context is needed to know if people are being given permission to allow these loads and fluids and materials to do things, or if they just might affect, cause, etc. on their own because of their inherent properties.

"Can" deals more with ability, which could include higher or lesser degress of possibility, and permission might or might not be granted.


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xxxIPtranslate
Brazil
English to Dutch
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my 2 cents worth Apr 5, 2011

As an engineer and linguist I can tell/assure you that the nuances and smalle differences that you are (rightly) talking about, are most probably not even noticed by the person who wrote the standard. I have read so many "technical" texts (mostly patents and standards) where it was plain obvious (for example because the author wasn't even consistent in his or her use of terms, verbs, or turns of phrases) that the original wasn't unambiguous or consistent, that I have stopped worrying about these things. I cannot make a text any better than it is; actually I can, and have done so in the past, but that is a different kind of job!

Only when I really get the impression that the author of a technical text really had a grasp on the linguistic aspects of his work, do I make the effort of looking into this. Even in the limited number of such occasions, it is not always sure that the original was of perfect quality; sometimes it is just not clear!

[Edited at 2011-04-05 21:54 GMT]


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Gennady Lapardin  Identity Verified
Russian Federation
Local time: 12:24
Italian to Russian
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
That was an international insurer's manufacturing standard Apr 5, 2011

As far as I remember, that was a manufacturing standard issued by a large international insurer. The implications as the eventual insurance compensation concern, are clear. Furthermore, there can be the problem of hairsplitting customer - final user of, or an additional revisor of the translation. All this may cause a certain burden.
But generally, I agree that your approach is quite typical and reasonable.

+ to MollyRose: now don't remember exactly the context, something like "never use agents that may cause corrosion", etc.

[Edited at 2011-04-05 20:50 GMT]


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