Writing well and translating poorly

Paul Graham always writes interesting articles (though I can’t figure out for the life of me why he hosts them as a Yahoo store), but I don’t track him very closely, so when I ran across a link to his somewhat old Writing, Briefly, I read it eagerly.

And noticed with interest that it has been translated into a number of languages, including a Japanese version (which I can read), and a Spanish version (which I can kinda fake). His advice “use simple, germanic words” may be good (though I’d phrase it as “Anglo-Saxon words”), and as a translation issue, it certainly stands out.

The Spanish translator preserved it but struck it out: “usa palabras simples, germánicas;”

The Japanese translator included it without comment: “簡単でドイツ語的な単語を使いなさい。”

Now, the funny thing here is that there’s a pretty good equivalent to Anglo-Saxon vocabulary for Japanese—大和言葉. I’m not how perfectly the two accord, or whether avoiding 漢語 would be as important to a Japanese version of Paul Graham as avoiding Latinate words apparently is to the English-speaking Paul Graham. Regardless, though, the translator kept that in there. Apparently the translator is relying on the reader to keep in mind that this is a translation of an English text for English audiences, and to understand what Germanic vocabulary means in terms of English style. Going the other way, I would never make that assumption—an English audience would be completely lost if I presented them with the phrase “yamato kotoba” in a text translated from Japanese. But then again, it might be jarring to them if I adapted the concept to “Anglo-Saxon vocabulary” if they knew that my piece was a translation. One could dodge this by simply saying “use native vocabulary.”

The case with Spanish is knotty in its own way. I know Spanish has its share of loanwords, but it doesn’t have the overwhelming influence of French and Latin that English has (and even if it did, it would be harder to tell them apart), or of Chinese that Japanese has. So the call to use native vocabulary is redundant. The way the translator chose to deal with it here is interesting—it transparently acknowledges that the text is a translation, and that in this case, the idea doesn’t quite fit in the translation.

2 thoughts on “Writing well and translating poorly”

  1. I have heard that idea of using Germanic words more in writing so that you will sound less stilted and more “natural”. But sometimes the words which we are supposed to avoid are themselves Germanic–e.g., avoid “such as” and use “like” instead. But “such” is Germanic and “as” is Old English. Or advice to write “and the like” instead of “etc.”, except “and the like” sounds more stilted (though, to its credit, does inflate the word count, though probably nobody has ever had that on their mind:).

    When it gets down to it I think words sound like written language because they are used in writing, not because of their etymology (which in the age of television and Internet is likely a hodgepodge of Latin, Greek and what-have-you in any case).

    I think there’s some validity to your Japanese analogy. Think of words like 使用 (shiyou) vs. 使う (tsukau); the latter is used much less in speech than in writing. OTOH, the Kanji make it easier to know the meaning of a particular Chinese-based word when there are lots of homonymns. People may prefer the native Japanese vocabulary in speech to avoid confusion due to these homonymns.

  2. Think of words like 使用 (shiyou) vs. 使う (tsukau); the latter is used much less in speech than in writing

    oops, that would be “the former”

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