Learning Grammar is Not a Bucket List Item
Do you remember having to diagram sentences back in high school? Most people would probably say that they hated it. I recall many of my classmates groaning at the thought of having to learn grammar. Subjects, objects, verbs, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions—it all seemed like a foreign language. At the time, it certainly felt like an abstract concept that didn’t really fit into our everyday lives.
Even as adults, we usually don’t spend much time thinking about grammar. Unless we formally learn another language or are a trained linguist, grammar remains a distant afterthought. Nevertheless, we all apply grammatical rules—consciously or not—when we communicate.
In addition, social media has drastically changed how we communicate these days and how we apply grammar. For instance, there are countless apps that come to our rescue in the form of spell/grammar checkers and emoji expressions.
Consequently, it’s safe to say that learning grammar is not a bucket list item for most people.
Why Knowing Grammar is Crucial
For translators, knowing proper grammar may not be a bucket list item either, but it is a necessity and part of the job. Knowledge of grammatical constructs—in both the source and target languages—enables translators to address comprehension challenges.
A layman might think of translation as a process that simply matches words from one language with equivalent words in another language. But even if people acknowledge that there is more to it than that, they probably underestimate the impact of grammatical constructs. Why? Because most people assume that grammar works similarly across languages.
However, if you speak more than one language, you will know that this is decidedly not the case. Word order and sentence structures can vary significantly. In addition, some languages use constructs that don’t exist in other languages. In such cases, linguistic non-equivalence requires translators to use workarounds.
Whenever native speakers feel that a translation sounds unnatural or too literal, they probably say that the translation doesn’t flow well. Some reasons for that include inappropriate word choices and incompatible grammatical constructs in the source text. One of the key challenges in translation is to relay meaning and concepts by bridging grammatical constructs.
Examples of Grammatical Constructs
Let’s review a few examples of common constructs in the English language. Please keep in mind that not all languages use these constructs, and if they do, they might not use them the same way.
For example, the gerund is a construct that can cause problems for other languages. In case you’re wondering, a gerund is a verbal noun that adds “ing” to its verb form:
- Swimming is good exercise.
In the above example, “swimming” is the gerund of the verb “to swim.”
Another example is the present participle. A present participle is a verbal adjective that uses the “ing” (present) form of its verb form:
- The singing bird sounds beautiful.
In this case, “singing” is the present participle of the verb “to sing.”
Both gerunds and present participles are common in English sentence structures. However, these constructs can also cause ambiguity for translators.
Take a look at the following sentences:
- Visiting relatives can be a hassle.
- Moving objects can be dangerous.
Are the above two sentences using the gerund or the present participle? More importantly, without further context, we simply don’t know the exact meaning of each sentence. Does the first sentence state that it is a hassle to visit relatives (gerund) or is it a hassle when relatives come to visit (present particle)? The same ambiguity applies to the second example.
Phrasal verbs are another common construct in English. A phrasal verb is a combination of a verb + preposition or a verb + adverb.
- Take off the rear panel to access the power supply.
- If you take off on time, you will make the meeting.
English uses many phrasal verbs—more so than other languages. Because phrasal verbs can have multiple meanings and are often idiomatic, they can impose challenges on translations as well.
The Impact of Grammatical Constructs on Translations
Often, translations can read awkwardly if we try too hard to follow sentence structures and constructs that don’t exist or work the same way in a target language. Therefore, translators might have to deviate significantly from the original sentence structure and use different wording to achieve a natural flow.
For technical content, some companies establish controlled vocabularies and limitations for grammatical constructs. This provides defined authoring rules and establishes a lowest denominator across languages. In turn, technical writers can reference a rule-based content design framework that ensures better translatability of source content.
For example, the aviation industry has long recognized that creating English content for non-native English speakers requires a controlled set of terminology and limitations on the use of grammatical constructs. In the early eighties, Simplified Technical English (STE) emerged as an authoring standard (ASD-STE100) for creating technical documentation for airplane maintenance.
The general concept of STE is viable for other technical content and industries as well. Its main idea is to create content that non-native English speakers can easily read and understand. By removing ambiguity through using a predefined vocabulary and simple grammatical constructs, STE improves readability and comprehension.
Since translation quality correlates closely with the readability of source content, STE’s general principles also enable better translations. Many companies have adopted the idea of a controlled authoring framework by developing their unique vocabularies and writing rules for technical source content.
By contrast, creative content such as marketing materials and non-technical literature is very different and benefits from flexible, unrestricted creativity. This means that translators must be able to accommodate the full range of rules and grammatical constructs that a language has to offer.
Bridging grammatical constructs between languages is fundamental to the translation process. Having a comprehensive knowledge of vocabulary alone will not guarantee translation quality. Regardless of content type, translators must understand grammatical constructs in the source and target languages. Only then can they capture the meaning and mood of the source content.
Because languages do not always share the same set of grammatical rules and constructs, ambiguity and comprehension issues can arise. Linguistic non-equivalence adds to the complexity and translators often require workarounds to capture the original meaning.
Rule-based authoring frameworks can help mitigate some of the translation challenges for technical content. However, not all content types benefit from such frameworks. For example, creative content assumes a creative process that effectively conveys emotions, nuances, and ideas. Restricting this process would undermine it and result in translations that are too literal and fail to successfully communicate the concept expressed in the source text.
Grammatical constructs are fundamental building blocks of every language. Bridging them across languages is an essential part of every translation.