translation

Comma removal

Re-hashes of older blog posts and various guest posts I have written will appear here with a #flashbackfriday tag.  I cannot promise I will always publish on a Friday, but the fricative-heavy hashtag will serve to indicate that the blog contains archived material. This blog on revision and the “comma removal process” was originally posted on my previous website in September 2015.

 comma removed

I have written this post in an attempt to convey just one nebulous aspect of the translation process simply because I happened to come across a sentence which serves to illustrate something which is quite hard to explain without examples. The sentence is taken from a biographical article on José Saramago, recipient of the Nobel Prize In Literature in 1988. The full article can be found here. The English text is a translated one. I have been unable to find the original Portuguese.
Saramago - tracked changes
Messy tracked changes!

From a reading of the English target text, I cannot detect any obvious errors in the translation from the Portuguese cited above, and only one place where I could immediately see the source text shining though. The sentence discussed below is a good example of how faithfully transferring sentence length and punctuation from the Portuguese into English can make the English rendition clumsy.

I was so excited when I first discovered this particular subtle shift required during the Portuguese to English translation process because it demands a much more elegant performance of acrobatics than, say, German to English translation where seeking out the constituent parts of verbs and relative clauses take precedence. My discovery occurred about 2.5 years after I started learning Portuguese, in case you are interested.

I don’t know if you can spot what I mean by “too many commas” in the following sentence taken from the article. To me, it has several possibilities for the re-ordering or re-grouping of the information to make it more readable for the English reader; more intelligible to the English ear:

Saramogo sentence

I will re-do the first half of this sentence to illustrate how to eliminate two commas and make it more “English” (with only one word change – “during” instead of “in”):

Maybe because he had served as an artillery soldier in France during World War I and had known other surroundings from those of the village, my father decided….
Do you see? It’s the transforming of the four-part or three-part structure into a two-part one.Now that the first section has no “little humps in the road”, we can continue:
Maybe because he had served as an artillery soldier in France during World War I and had known other surroundings from those of the village, my father decided in 1924 to leave farm work and move with his family to Lisbon, where he started as a policeman.
There is nothing wrong with “for which job were required…” It is just that the English reader needs some time to process all the information in the sentence so far. A breather; a full stop. You can see that this is necessary merely by looking at all the complications in the final stretch of the sentence: inverted commas, brackets with continuation marks… the second half of a comparison, and a list!

So, here is that original sentence (also a paragraph), slightly rewritten:

Maybe because he had served as an artillery soldier in France during World War I and had known other surroundings from those of the village, my father decided in 1924 to leave farm work and move with his family to Lisbon, where he started as a policeman. The job required no more “literary qualifications” (a common expression then…) than reading, writing and arithmetic.

What we now have is two sentences instead of one. The only changes made have been at the level of punctuation and word order.

But we are not finished, because there is still something sticking out like a sore thumb which we could not possibly have dealt with until we had got the main structure right. So, let’s do that now:

Maybe because he had served as an artillery soldier in France during World War I and had known surroundings other than those of the village, my father decided in 1924 to leave farm work and move with his family to Lisbon, where he started as a policeman. The job required no more “literary qualifications” (a common expression then…) than reading, writing and arithmetic.

Just so that you do not have to scroll up again, here is the original sentence for comparison with the thoroughly revised one:

Original:
Maybe because he had served in World War I, in France as an artillery soldier, and had known other surroundings from those of the village, my father decided in 1924 to leave farm work and move with his family to Lisbon, where he started as a policeman, for which job were required no more “literary qualifications” (a common expression then…) than reading, writing and arithmetic.

Revised:
Maybe because he had served as an artillery soldier in France during World War I and had known  surroundings other than those of the village, my father decided in 1924 to leave farm work and move with his family to Lisbon, where he started as a policeman. The job required no more “literary qualifications” (a common expression then…) than reading, writing and arithmetic.

Now, read both versions of this sentence aloud. Follow the punctuation (i.e. pause appropriately when you encounter commas and full stops). Which text is easier to read? Which text is less confusing? From which text is it easier to extract information?  I think the revised text is the better one, don’t you?

The original sentence was 65 words long. Do you think the changes I have made are worth more than €1.95 (or the most often offered rate of €0.03/word)?  What about what the overall effect would be if you had a short story – or even this entire article, say? Or a novel? I think these changes are most definitely worth more than the rate most often paid, and make a strong argument in favour of applying an hourly rate to such work.

And if I had the original source text to hand, don’t you think I would check straight away to see what alternative translation could be found for ‘”literary qualifications”‘ in an attempt to eliminate those horrible inverted commas?

We know that José Saramogo has a particular writing style, very similar, unsurprisingly, to the style and feel of the paragraph I have revised here. But if you look carefully at the second half of the article, he himself departs from this style, so that the article loses its overall coherence. You also have to remember that the sentence structure employed by Saramago in the Portuguese is fairly normal for a Portuguese text, so in this case, it behoves the writers of the English version (the translator and the revisor) to produce a sentence which is fairly usual within the norms applied to English texts.  I was not really criticising a Nobel Laureate; I was merely pointing out that his trademark storytelling style was not employed throughout the article. Admittedly the text as a whole does not lend itself easily to a nice, rounded feel given the list of all the works published.

My question, therefore, is this: Surely, tightening up the prose in the initial paragraphs to match the latter ones will render the whole article more palatable, and give a better overall impression? If the reader wants to read Saramogo purely for his written style, there are plenty of works to choose from, both in the original Portuguese and in translation.

Two other considerations:

  1. I wonder whether a non-native speaker of English can see the difference between the original sentence and my revised one?
  2. If I had translated this text from the original Portuguese (which I have not seen), I wonder how close to my revision above it would have been?

Perhaps I should mention for those who do not habitually work with texts that all the changes described in detail above normally happen at speed. There are times, however, where changing just one word in a text might take half an hour, a good deal of research, consultations (while maintaining confidentiality) with colleagues or, indeed, an entire night’s sleep before the correct replacement word or phrase is found. This is true for all sorts of texts, and not just literary ones.

These are some of the things that run through my mind when I translate and revise, and have done so for years. It is called constantly honing one’s craft – an obligation which translators have to themselves and to their readers.

©2015 Allison Wright