The Use of Contractions in Textbook Translation
Thread poster: DARKastheRAIN
Nov 4, 2016

I'm translating an excerpt from a science textbook targeted at high school students (source language: Russian) and am trying to decide whether or not to use contractions in the English translation. Looking at some of my own college science textbooks for reference I see that some of them use contractions and others don't. The style of the source text seems to be pretty relaxed, but Russian has no equivalent to contractions in English.

Personally I think the translation reads better with contractions than without, but I've always thought the no contractions in formal writing rule was stupid anyway. Maybe under some circumstances the thing to do would be to ask the customer for their preference, but in this case the excerpt is just being used as a portfolio sample and isn't for an actual customer. I've been in contact with the original author to ask for permission to post a translation but I don't think they know enough English to have an opinion on the use of contractions.

So I guess the question is, would a prospective client/agency be more likely to look at contractions and say this is too informal, or to look at an uncontracted text and say this sounds stilted and unnatural?

What's your own policy regarding contractions?

[Edited at 2016-11-04 16:57 GMT]


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Laura Brown  Identity Verified
United States
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Chinese to English
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Go with Natural Sounding Nov 7, 2016

I'd say for material like this, based on my experience, the client is likely looking for most text that is the most natural sounding. This means you should use occasional contractions. Especially if the client doesn't have a real preference or understanding, I feel like you will usually get more flack for writing something stilted and unnatural sounding. Just my two cents!

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Lingua 5B  Identity Verified
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Local time: 08:44
English to Croatian
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Really? Nov 7, 2016

DARKastheRAIN wrote:

Russian has no equivalent to contractions in English.


I thought most Indo-European languages had contracted verb options? We certainly do in my language as in "gled'o, gledao/ igr'o, igrao", etc. and they sound very informal and are more common in spoken language. Full forms would sound very unnatural in informal setting.

Science textbook should undergo editing and checking before publishing, then perhaps hear what editor has to say?

However, I would say science textbook should use full forms, even if it's addressed at high school students.

[Edited at 2016-11-07 08:14 GMT]


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DARKastheRAIN
TOPIC STARTER
Really-ish Nov 7, 2016

Lingua 5B wrote:

DARKastheRAIN wrote:

Russian has no equivalent to contractions in English.


I thought most Indo-European languages had contracted verb options?


There's the odd word that gets contracted in speech, but nothing I've seen that I'd call equivalent to the widespread English contractions.


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Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 08:44
Member (2003)
Danish to English
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I write things in full... Nov 7, 2016

I started life in areas where the natural contractions used when speaking were wouldn't, couldn't, didn't ... and moved north later, to where ..'d not as in

he'd not, she'd not, could you(ye) not? did he not? ... were used.

Likewise, I moved from haven't to I've not, he's not ... etc. or even the Scottish I've no' with a glottal stop instead of the t.

I find written contractions irritating if they go against the way I would say the sentence myself, but have no trouble with the words written in full. I keep quite firmly to the rule about avoiding contractions in formal writing. 'Haven't got' sounds odd to many people who say 'don't have', and vice versa.

As for gonna and wanna ... Keep away from those!

I checked with the New Scientist website, which is probably close to the style you want to aim at. Some writers use contractions, but not all of them. There are plenty of other ways to keep the style informal, without sounding stilted.
You will find the odd 'it's' or 'didn't', but the articles are not peppered with contractions, and are perhaps formulated to avoid using too many.

Never say never is a good rule in English style! But don't overdo it either.


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philgoddard
United States
Member (2009)
German to English
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I mostly do editing... Nov 7, 2016

... and failure to use contractions when you should do is one of the most common mistakes in less than perfect translation. That and putting the currency sign after the number!

It partly depends on the tone of the text, though. If it's friendly, informal, perhaps even humorous, you should definitely use them.


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B D Finch  Identity Verified
France
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Member (2006)
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What is the target readership? Nov 7, 2016

If the target readership is native English speaking, then I think you can use occasional contractions. However, you should avoid being too informal and chatty as that can seem condescending, unless the target readership is very young and you need to make the subject matter unintimidating.

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Chris S  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Swedish to English
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I'd use them Nov 7, 2016

My kids' school textbooks are so like totally dumbed down, it's the 21st century way

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Robin Levey
Chile
Local time: 04:44
Spanish to English
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No contractions Nov 7, 2016

OP tells us the textbook is for use by "high school students". Many high school students attending classes conducted in English, regardless of the country, are likely not to have English as their mother tongue (although they may, of course, be very proficient in the language). Also, they are close to entering the worlds of higher learning or employment, and this is a good time to encourage them to distinguish between the sloppy English of the social media and the rather more refined English that is still the norm in academic and professional communication.

Just today I was reading http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20161028-native-english-speakers-are-the-worlds-worst-communicators. It brought back vivid memories of the time when I worked as a translator and editor in an international organization, where I had to battle constantly with native English authors who, despite having excellent academic credentials from Oxbridge, were absolutely unable to communicate effectively with users of English as a second or third language although they, as observed in the web-ref, were perfectly able to understand each other’s English.

If, as teachers (or as their accomplices through translation), we want to be understood by the world’s future leaders (and where is that more important than in a textbook?), then we must respect the niceties of formal grammar and spelling, and use the appropriate register.


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Georgie Scott  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 08:44
Member (2009)
French to English
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2c Nov 8, 2016

I would avoid them for a scientific textbook, although you don't necessarily need to ban them outright.

For blogs, copy and articles that are supposed to be friendly and "on a level" with their readers, I would recommend keeping them.

But that's just my opinion.

I just proofread a friend's thesis application and recommended removing all the contractions as they made the text sound quite unprofessional.


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Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 08:44
Member (2003)
Danish to English
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The Chicago Manual of Style allows contractions Nov 8, 2016

Para. 5.103 in my copy: (16th edition)

Contractions. Most types of writing benefit from the use of contractions.
It then goes on to specify how and when.

In a textbook, I would definitely encourage high-school students to develop a clear, sensible style, moving towards reading and contributing to serious scientific literature.
They are past the junior stage of 'science is fun'. It is not just a game any more, it also demands hard work. OK, it should be fascinating and rewarding, but must be taken seriously. Although you have no influence on the content, you are rightly aware of the role you play in determining the style of the text.

John Swales and Christine Feak have written on this subject - genres and register in academic writing. I would aim at taking the young people seriously and assuming that one day they may be writing lab reports if not PhD theses... each in the appropriate language. Their writing needs to be readable and accurate - think first of the teachers correcting their high-school assignments, and later colleagues and peers reviewing their work.
So set them an example!


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The Use of Contractions in Textbook Translation

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