Tuesday, April 06, 2010

A grammar exercise for translators

Here below is an article I recently wrote for the translation class I teach at Denver University. I would like to know what other translators think about the worth of exercises such as the one described below. Specifically, what do you think the advantages and drawbacks of an exercise like this can be for a student of translation?

Studying grammar to uncover translation problems

Too often students of translation (this is especially true of self-taught translators) concentrate on words alone: students learn word meanings as if they were labels, unconsciously trying to match them to the words in their native language. Grammar, frequently, is neglected: the student thinks of it as something he had to learn while learning a language, perhaps, but that now he already knows (or so he assumes).
Studying grammar, however, is important throughout the study of translation, and even beyond, when the translator is already a working professional.
One exercise I think is important and interesting is to study the examples given in grammar books and see how they should be translated to convey their meaning best. Usually there will be several correct solutions, although often none perfectly so.
Take a book on the English verb, or the section of a grammar book devoted to verbs. My first example is taken from Meaning and the English Verb, a slim textbook by Geoffrey Leech I had for a course in text linguistics I followed at the University of Genoa.
The way you can do the exercise is this: you read a statement about the use of a verbal tense...
8. The simple present is suitable for employment in the expression of 'eternal truths' [...] "The Atlantic Ocean separates the New World from the Old."
Simple enough, apparently. In Italian also we can use the present tense: "L'Oceano Atlantico separa il Vecchio Mondo dal Nuovo". But here already we can think of other ways such a sentence could be written in Italian. Perhaps we can use of the passive voice: "Il Vecchio e il Nuovo Mondo sono separati dall'Oceano Atlantico". Too heavy? Maybe "Il Nuovo Mondo è separato dal Vecchio dall'Oceano Atlantico". This also seems worse than our first try.
Back to the simple present, at least for now. Let's go to the next example, and see how it can be translated best.
This is from Rafael Seco's Manual de gramática española:
El presente expresa una acción no terminada que se ejecuta en el momento de la palabra. Entiéndase bien que el presente no debe estimarse como un instante fugaz, sino como un plazo de tiempo más o menos largo, en el cual está comprendido el momento en que se habla. Así puede decirse en presente: "Pedro estudia para abogado". No es que Pedro, en el preciso instante en que se habla, esté trabajando en sus estudios, sino que este trabajo lo viene realizando durante cierto período de tiempo dentro del cual está comprendido el instante en que se enuncia el verbo.
How best do we translate this simple sentence in English? Does the simple present work here, or is the present continuous better? If so, why, or why not?
I think you can see how doing often such an exercise may be invaluable for really learning how best to express a language's nuances in a different language.


  1. Grammar study is definitely important. I have always been "good" at language arts in my mother tongue, but I have never studied translation and since I started translating I have had to go back and study grammar and rules in order to make sure target document reads properly. I have also studied many style guides for different projects and learned a lot that way. Now that I am developing certification for EN-SV in ATA, I am buried in grammatical rules. We have just tested the first set of texts on ourselves and grammar is something that continuously needs to be studied and refreshed.

  2. Being a teacher makes me be in touch with my source language grammar on a daily basis. And also, as I consider myself a teacher first, I am humble enough to know I don't know everything! (alright, not many teachers are like that, but surely many more than translators!)
    I also check my target language grammar from time to time, though being my mother tongue it's easier to revise.
    By the way, I've spot many mistakes on English speakers (sometimes translators) that, as a teacher, I consider very basic mistakes, for instance, who's for whose, they're for their, and eve then for than!
    Besides, regarding my language pairs, even the "same" verb tense have not the same use in both languages, and it even varies from country to country - a good example is the Present Perfect equivalent in Spanish, el Pretérito Perfecto Compuesto, which sometimes is used as a translation for Pres. Perfect (Mexico), whereas in Argentina and Uruguay we use el Pretérito Perfecto Simple (more like Simple Present):

    Michael have just arrived.
    Michael ha llegado recién.
    Michael llego recién.

    In conclusion, as in any other skill we need to keep practicing and revising, and as one of my teachers says, we are lifelong learners.

  3. In "more like Simple Present", I meant "Simple Past".
    I'm human, after all!

  4. speaking is important as writing. But for a non native speaker, if you'll stick yourself on the rule to communicate with native speaker, you'll find in disappointing and frustrating.

    Skimming in IELTS

  5. For the example above, "Pedro estudia para abogado" it could be translated as " Peter/Pedro is pursuing a lawyer degree" ; " Peter/Pedro is studying to become a lawyer" "Peter/Pedro is a law student"; "Peter/ Pedro will become a lawyer by studying".


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