Tag Archives: Active Voice

About this sentence that you’re reading

Originally published in Active Voice, the magazine of the Editors’ Association of Canada

About this sentence that you’re reading…

Should that be “About this sentence, which you’re reading”? After all, you’re not reading any other sentence, are you? So it’s not restrictive, so it must be non-restrictive, meaning it should have a comma and use which. Right?

I was talking to my wife Aina and a friend about this the other day…

What?

What do you mean, how many wives do I have? Look, if I set it off in commas, it would be “I was talking to my wife, Aina, and a friend about this the other day,” and you would be saying “So that’s three people? Who’s your wife if not Aina?”

Since you’re an editor, you’ve heard of restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. A nonrestrictive clause is like a little Santa Claus in the sentence: it gives the reader a gift, with a comma or two as tiny ribbons.

The cakes are served warm.

The cakes, which are kept in the refrigerator but carried under the waiters’ arms, are served warm.

The sentence would be coherent without it, but it’s there as a special bonus of information. It’s also called a nonrestrictive relative, which works because it’s not really Santa Claus giving you gifts, it’s your relatives. (The rules apply similarly to non-clause modifiers as well, such as the name of my wife, Aina.)

A restrictive clause or relative (or modifier) is like your aunt who says “I’m giving you anything you want as long as it’s this sweater!” It no sooner gives than it starts to take away.

The tea is served cold.

The tea that is carried by Pat is served cold; the tea that is carried by Alex is served warm.

But where there is a Claus, there may be a Grinch. What is a restrictive Grinch? It’s one of those people who carp at things that are perfectly clear to reasonable people. Consider:

He went to a famous school called Eton.

The restrictive Grinch might say “Oh, so there are multiple famous schools called Eton?” In fact, the sentence does not necessarily imply that there are multiple famous schools called Eton (although it does imply that there are multiple famous schools), and ambiguity is not automatically a grammatical error – although it can be worth avoiding… when a reasonable person might reasonably misread it, or when too many people might deliberately (and unreasonably) misread it for their own entertainment.

Reasonableness is important. Communication normally (outside of contracts and courts of law) depends on people being reasonable. We make inferences on the basis of what’s reasonable, given our knowledge of the world. If we have some new data, such as a sentence,* and we choose among different interpretations on the basis of what we already know to be the case, we’re using a loose form of Bayesian inference.

Let’s take a Bayesian look at “my wife Aina and a friend” versus “my wife, Aina, and a friend.” In the version with commas, if we don’t know my wife’s name, we need to conjecture or determine whether I use the serial comma; if I don’t, it’s clearly two people, but if I do, it may be three. In the version without commas, the possibilities are (1) that I have more than one wife or (2) that I am disregarding the usual rule about setting off nonrestrictives with commas. Why would I disregard it? To avoid interrupting the flow or causing ambiguity with the extra commas. Given that bigamy is illegal in our society, option 2 is far more likely. Indeed, only a restrictive Grinch would raise the objection that the comma-free version must mean option 1.

There are, of course, many cases where proper use of commas is necessary to set off nonrestrictive clauses for clarity or legal defensibility. But there are also cases where the commas make no difference to the meaning but may make a difference to the flow or tone. The moon, which orbits the earth, is also the moon that orbits the earth (since there are many moons but there is one we call the moon); the sun, which we orbit, is also the sun that we orbit (for the same reason). This sentence that you’re reading is this sentence, which you’re reading, and the different possible uses of this make both defensible, but flow and tone may make one a better choice than the other.

So, when we are faced with a modifier such as a relative clause and we’re not confident about whether it’s restrictive or unrestrictive, we should ask the following questions:

  1. Will the commas help or hurt the flow?
  2. How likely is it to be misread accidentally?
  3. How likely is it to be misread deliberately?
    1. By which readers?
      1. And do they really matter?

 

*Or some new data such as a sentence – equally true.

untranslatable

This article first appeared in Active Voice, the national newsletter of Editors Canada.

What’s English for Schadenfreude? Schadenfreude, of course.

Words are like Barbie dolls or trading cards or Hummel figurines or camera lenses or kitchen gadgets: if we see one that fills a spot that we don’t already have filled, we want it. Even if we didn’t know we needed to fill that spot until we saw the word.

This is surely one reason listicles about “untranslatable words” are currently popular. Perhaps you never thought before about wanting a word that means “the look on a person’s face as they watch the person ahead of them at a bakery take the last one of the pastry they wanted,” but once you see a word for it, goshdarn it, you have to have it.*

The funny thing about those articles on untranslatable words is that they always give translations for the words. And not just “Schadenfreude (n.): Schadenfreude,” either, but “Enjoyment of someone else’s suffering.” So, really, the words aren’t untranslatable, are they? Not any more than anything else is. There just isn’t a single word for them.

Actually, if you want a really untranslatable word, try a preposition. How about French à? Does that mean “to”? Hmm. In C’est à moi? In J’habite à Montréal? In poulet à la crème? You can’t come up with a single equivalent word for any preposition, because different languages always use them in different ways. And yet within the sentence you can always translate them, as much as you can translate anything else.

But the dirty secret of translation is that you can’t really translate anything else either.

You can only come sufficiently close in the context of the text and your culture. And sometimes barely even sufficiently. Every word has different overtones and associations and references for different cultures – and for different sets of people (and even for each different individual) within a culture. It has different phrases it typically shows up with, different places it’s been heard, different rhymes, different sets of things it has been used to refer to commonly. And there are different attitudes towards what it refers to.

The idea of a purely accurate translation is like the idea of a truly authentic culinary experience from another culture. Say you want an authentic Thai curry. You go to a Thai restaurant. But they’re using Canadian-grown ingredients. So you go where they have imported Thai ingredients. But you’re still in a Canadian restaurant. So you go to Thailand. Ah. But you’re still… a Canadian in Thailand. You didn’t grow up eating Thai food. Look, imagine a person from another country (maybe Namibia or Vanuatu) eating fruitcake or roast turkey or tuna casserole for the first time. There is no way their experience of it is going to be like yours. You just have to accept that. Cultural experiences are not truly fully translatable. And language is a cultural experience.

Of course, there are many things that are purely functional, and the cultural accretions are quite incidental. “Push to open.” “Tear here.” No problem there; cultural attitudes towards pushing and tearing can be treated as separate issues. That lulls us into thinking that accurate translation is possible.

But even there, we’re taking tone and connotation for granted. Why doesn’t the packet say “Rip here”? Why doesn’t the door say “Shove to open”? And once we get even a little farther from the purely mechanical, judgment calls are a regular thing. Send the same document, even on a technical subject, to two different translators and you will get two different renditions, each with its merits and detractions. And if you get into fiction or plays or – the worst – poetry, you’re really just getting a sort of harmonic resonance of the original, on a different instrument.

Consider this:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

The famous first stanza of Dante’s Divina Commedia. Lovely, flavourful Italian. Here’s Robert Pinsky’s version:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost.

Here’s Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Here’s Courtney Langdon’s:

When half way through the journey of our life
I found that I was in a gloomy wood,
because the path which led aright was lost.

Right road? Straightforward pathway? Path which led aright? Wood, woods, forest? Dark, gloomy? Midway, half way?

This is why Italians say traduttore traditore. Which has been translated “to translate is to betray.” But really I think it’s better rendered as “Translator? Traitor.”

 

*Oh, you want a word for that? How about discrescent? Or pain-déçu? I know: bedrøvet. That’s the Danish version of “sad.”