Sunday, February 06, 2011

Plain English - does it translate?

The European Union is making a welcome effort to introduce plain language principles, and last year produced a plain language guide, How to write clearly. A recent newsletter 'Languages and translation' refers to the rise of not just English but 'bad English as the Commission’s lingua franca'. It asked a number of translators to reflect on how they adapted the guide to various different EU languages.

We know that the rules of plain English don't directly translate into other languages – for example, English has many expressions for which there are latin and anglo-saxon alternatives - the latter are seen as plainer ('get' instead of 'receive'), but the equivalent vocabulary choice is not an issue in other languages. And we can use noun clusters in a way that just doesn't work in French, so our sentences can often be shorter.

But I found myself wondering if some of the translators' comments were actually about real grammatical differences between languages, or whether they didn't hint at an earlier stage of plain language evolution in those cultures.

It was very noticeable that the recommendation, common in plain English, to use the active voice, met with resistance:

"A chapter on the use of the passive voice was modified as the use of the passive voice in Latvian is not always a bad choice."
"Hint 8 (‘Prefer active verbs to passive’) could well be valid for conversational Lithuanian, but not for legal texts. In fact, the passive often takes precedence over the active here, especially when there is an inanimate subject."
"The over-use of the passive voice may be more of a problem in English than in Portuguese, as the latter favours the impersonal active."
But Plain English also involves the introduction of a more conversational style into legal texts, and met with similar objections many years ago. The point about active sentences is that they specify the doer, and so someone has to take responsibility for an action. Passive sentences avoid commitment. I wonder if that's not the same in Latvian, Lithuanian and Portuguese.

And again:
"The most difficult bit to get around had to do with addressing the reader directly. The English guide suggested using the personal pronoun ‘you’ more often in documents — something which is certainly to be avoided in formal Portuguese. Direct address is acceptable in advertising or in direct information to the public, but in other areas it may be wiser to use impersonal constructions."
Plain English, too, is nearer to an advertising style than was once acceptable. Isn't plain Portuguese also bound to appear less formal than is traditional in official documents?

I'd love to be corrected by someone who knows what they're talking about.