Welcome to my latest article. For the last one, please see here.


This month I am going to take a brief look at sentence structure. This is one of those broad, but essential, subjects which covers a lot: I see a lot of errors related to sentence structure in translations, and particularly problems with word order and punctuation, so I shall concentrate on these two issues here.


As you are of course aware, German rules and English rules for these two topics often differ, sometimes enormously. It pays to be aware of the differences, as it will be much easier for you in the long run.


Take this simple sentence:


German: Lukas meine Name


which I saw translated as


English: Lukas is my name.


If you see something like this translation written, using this particular word order, it is generally for emphasis. For instance, a friend of mine visited a shop which bears the same name as her surname. When she was asked her own name, this prompted a little confusion. In English she could have said:


XXX [shop name/her surname] is my name


But in the translation I am quoting, while it conveys the correct meaning, it is actually not the usual word order in English when someone is simply introducing themself, which is:


My name is Lukas.


Another example I see frequently is the German order of


German: der Marke XXX [brand name]


being copied as


English: the brand XXX [brand name]


while, when correctly translated into English this order should be reversed:


the XXX [brand name] brand.


This also applies when an item and a product name are mentioned, for instance


German: Radio “[brand name]”


Was translated as


English: Radio ‘[brand name]’


when the correct order in English is


[brand name] radio.


Think, for example, of a Ford Fiesta car, which we say instead of a car Ford Fiesta, if you want confirmation.


Note also that the quotation marks used above are not necessary in English. While they are obviously used to indicate speech, they can also be used to suggest that something is not actually what it is quoted as being. This quote from Wikipedia explains it well:


Quotation marks may be used to indicate that the meaning of the word or phrase they surround should be taken to be different from (or, at least, a modification of) that typically associated with it, and are often used in this way to express irony. (For example, in the sentence 'The lunch lady plopped a glob of "food" onto my tray.' the quotation marks around the word food show it is being called that ironically.) They also sometimes appear to be used as a means of adding emphasis, although this usage is usually considered incorrect.


So, along with exclamation marks, which are used far more often in German than in English, please be sparing with quotation marks and use them only where appropriate.


With this I move along from word order (although I could say a lot more, some examples I see are too specific to be helpful here) to punctuation.


German sentences frequently tend to be longer than English ones. In some translations that are transcriptions of the spoken word, too, proper punctuation seems to be forgotten. One instance I saw recently was a translation of 140 words, quite possibly a transcription, which had a few commas but not a single full stop/period until the end. The translation pretty much followed the same structure, and also used only one sentence. The ultimate result was text that was difficult to read. Since the aim of a translation is to produce a text in English that conveys the meaning of the original while reading as if it had originally been written in English, and whose meaning is as easy as possible to understand, it is apparent that this translation failed in this. Although some specialist texts can be somewhat long-winded and difficult for a non-specialist reader to understand, when it is a matter of a straightforward text in everyday language, then any ordinary person should be able to read it and understand it instantly. So your job entails not just translating the words, but making them clear. If you read your text back, using the correct punctuation in the correct places should mean that this has been achieved. If reading the text out loud entails your not being able to pause for breath without losing the thread, then it has not been achieved. Here is the translation I referred to for you to decide for yourself why it needs splitting into more sentences (no need to reproduce the original in this case):


Otherwise, it occurs to me that I would no longer find it so interesting and so beautiful if, let's say, the environment where the logo is located would also be decorated a lot with the color, let's say, yes, on a website, for example, if the logo is there simply, let's say, in the corner, let's say, and the color doesn't appear anywhere big on the website, then I would find it super, but if the logo is to be seen and on the website, for example, much, much this -- much this neon green [unintelligible] is to be seen would me [unintelligible] for the eye I would not find that beautiful, but otherwise I find it beautiful, fits everything and looks for me personally very appealing and accurate and very modern and very suitable [unintelligible] my age.


There are a few other issues here, including over-literal translation, but the main thing that is immediately noticeable is that it is difficult to read. If the original text is produced with no sentence break at all, you do not have to copy this: in fact, it is necessary to tidy the punctuation up enough to make the text comprehensible. For those who enjoy reading (which I hope is all of you, because reading helps you improve your own writing) it is worth noting that even Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce’s last book which many people deem to be the most difficult book in the English language to read (no, I haven’t read it – even my lecturer at university who covered Joyce said he had never been able to read it) is broken into manageable sentences (in length if not in content). If you feel like reading it, you’re braver than I am! And if you count the words, my last but one sentence was 81 words long, which is arguably too long! The fact that I have punctuated it in the correct places, though, and not just with commas, means you get the chance to catch a quick breath when you need one and should find it easy enough to read.


When all the words in your translation are written in the order appropriate for the language (in this case, of course, English) and your punctuation is in all the right places, then, providing everything you have translated is accurate, you can be assured that you have done a good job. Just take a little time once you have finished your translation to check that it reads well before you press submit (having edited it if necessary, of course).


Once again, please feel free to ask questions or make comments about this post.



Please sign in to leave a comment.