Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Word chains

You know the kind: a "fee" becomes a "processing fee" - clear enough, that's a fee for processing something, and very different from "fee processing", which is something you do to fees.

But then words start to accrue, like barnacles on a fouled hull. "Fee", "processing fee", "double processing fee", and so on. And on.

For the translator, the problem compounds: is a "double processing fee" a "double fee" for "processing", or a "fee" for "double processing"?. Depending of what we are talking about, either reading could be correct, but usually not both at the same time. The translator, in most languages, needs to make a choice.

Asking the customer helps less than one would think: the technical writer or programmer who was the author of such a gem as "special ad-hoc double processing fee handling program safety time log" may no longer be around. Even if he is, he has no idea what it means, or which word modifies which other.

When I worked for a software company we had a competition in the translation department for spotting the longest such word chain. The eventual winner was a whopping thirteen words long, without article or preposition.

English is such a concise language you can often omit articles, prepositions and other functional words, but by doing so "maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding".


(No: "special ad-hoc [etc.]" is not a string from some actual translation. I made it up for this post - but I have seen even worse)

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