In this class, we cover one of the most important subjects in translation: the writing style.
Every text is written differently and needs to be translated differently. How to do this? We will explain!
Style is the essential characteristic of every piece of writing, the outcome of the writer’s personality, and his emotions at the moment, and no single paragraph can be put together without revealing to some degree the personality of its author.
Song Xiaoshu, Cheng Dongming
Analysing the style: Not as difficult as it appears
When we translate a text, it is not only important to convey what it says in another language, but also to respect how it has been said. This is the style of the text. It can include more or less of the author’s subjectivity and emotions.
Both things are expressed through language. We must identify them so that we can then make sure that we keep the same tone and style in our translation.
In collaboration with María Correas
María Correas holds an MA and PhD from Durham University (UK). She has worked as a language teacher for over ten years, both in the UK and in Spain, and has experience in a broad range of programmes, from university degrees to multinational corporate training. She currently focuses mainly on translation and content creation.
Type of text
We can start by considering the type of text. This gives us an idea of what to expect in terms of formality and the degree of subjectivity/emotion before we start analysing the language.
For example, legal texts are formal and objective by nature, as their content should leave little room for interpretation. Therefore, we can expect little subjectivity or emotion.
Even within a certain type, every text has a purpose, and it is written with an audience in mind, both of which have a different degree of influence on the style. In the legal text example, the purpose of the text is to offer a common standard for everybody, regardless of who is going to read it. But if we think of a journalistic text, then the purpose and the audience can be much more varied. The audience also determines whether the text is concise or comprehensive. For example, if someone is writing an article in an architectural magazine aimed at architects, they can assume knowledge about house features, regulations, etc. without the need to explain them in great detail within that very article.
In summary, by asking ourselves, first, what type of text we are dealing with (for the general framework) and then considering the purpose and audience of that particular piece, we can gauge the type of language that will be used and, consequently, the type of language that our translation should feature.
We have already established that each text has a certain style, which can be more or less flexible depending on its type (and within it, its purpose and audience). Whereas in legal texts, for example, there is little choice of words to convey a concept and structures are always repetitive, in many other types of texts, there can be a broad range of emotions and subjectivity which calls for different word uses.
In most cases, there is more than just one word that we can use to translate the original, and exactly which one we decide to use is determined by the style. That is why it is so important to analyse it: if we just choose the first word that appears in the dictionary, purely because we think they are all synonyms, we might miss out those subtleties and alter the original style and tone of the text.
What clues can we look for within the language?
Every language has a set of structures to communicate a style to their speakers, but in general, the main European languages all use impersonal structures to express a neutral style, through the use of which the authors speak in general and not necessarily identify themselves with what is being said. Conversely, depending on the language and the type of text, the use of the first person is more or less acceptable. Some languages, for example, reject the use of the first person in academic texts, while others use ‘we’ not to focus on a single person. Obviously, when we are dealing with an opinion article, the first person will be more common.
The use of impersonal or personal structures does not always indicate formal or informal tone, but impersonal or passive structures tend to appear more in formal texts.
In addition, actual verb choice can convey a more formal or informal approach to the text. Also, we can consider things such as verbal periphrasis when establishing how concise/comprehensive and formal/informal a text wants to be.
They are particularly important for the emotional/subjective side of things. Adjectives are qualifiers, so they are the most useful tool when it comes to defining the intensity of how the author feels about what they are describing. E.g. ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ are obviously positive adjectives to define something, but ‘outstanding’ is much stronger. If instead of using ‘outstanding’, the author uses ‘amazing’ or ‘breathtaking’, we get a much more personal take on how they feel emotionally about what we are describing.
Although this is also the case for adjectives, nouns can tell us something about the level of formality of a text. For example, informal texts might include a lot of slang. Translating those words literally might make no sense, and in that case, our job will be to find a word which is used in that same colloquial context in the target language.
Their role is to provide examples to the reader and to bring the reality of what it is being explained closer. It is important that, when you translate, those sayings or expressions continue to perform the same role, even if the literal translation differs.
These are some examples of the most obvious things to look for when analysing style, but the more you translate, the more you will learn to identify what things define style in your source language(s).
Always remember that translating is a ‘rebound’ process: read the text, analyse what you have understood and how it has been expressed, and then use your expertise to put those aspects back into the translated version of your text.
Our way of working
Now you know how to analyse the text, we will explain how we’re helping with this process. We do this with our analysis format. This isn’t a replacement for the analysis process but mainly a tool to verify the whole team is on the same page. The translator is required to make this analysis and the reviser is required to read it.
Sources to look at
The most obvious source is the translation itself. In most cases, this will be sufficient for a style analysis. If the text is unstructured, very short or in other ways not suitable for analysis, we have to look for other sources. In this case we use the website or social media. If this isn’t suitable either and we don’t have any other sources available, we will leave the style analysis up to a client.
We go through each part of the writing style analysis format.
For the first part, the format starts with these questions, not needing anymore elaboration:
Who is the target audience? And how is the audience addressed?
What is the subject of the text?
What does the author wants to achieve with this text?
For each expertise field, there is a different format. We have six different expertise fields:
6. General (or ‘Other’)
Which expertise field will be used, is up to the project manager. These formats are changing constantly.
Target audience and form of address
When defining the target audience, we look at the context of a text. Who is going to read this text and in which setting? Will the text be published on a website or shared with a specific group?
Secondly, we take a look at how the audience is addressed. In most cases this is obvious. However, sometimes there isn’t a direct form of address. In this case, there will be an explanation of the way the author communicates with the audience, for example imperative.
Subject and purpose of the text
When defining the subject, we elaborate what the text is about.
When defining the purpose, we elaborate what the author wants to achieve. Do they want to inform, activate or convince?
We will have to seek an underlying message. For example Terms and Conditions are mainly meant to hedge all risks. This means the text should be translated as complete as possible, even if it affects the readability. The purpose really makes a difference here.
Furthermore, we analyse the text by pointing out the style of a text between two describing extremes. For example: is the text formal or informal?
With every text, we tell how the style describes between two dualities. We place the dot in the right place to give a clear view. The most important is the elaboration on why the dot is this place. By doing this, it’s easy for all parties to understand the writing style.
We mainly work with these four dualities
1. Formal vs. Informal
2. Subjective vs. Objective
3. Emotional vs. Emotionless
4. Concise vs, Comprehensive
The dualities can differ per expertise field
Enough sleep is necessary for good health. Nevertheless, the hours of sleep received by young people have decreased over the past 20 years.
Research at Columbia University shows that especially female students and young people from the lower social classes regularly sleep less than seven hours.
The largest decrease in the percentage of young people sleeping at least 7 hours per night was seen among 15-year-olds. Between 1991 and 2000 in particular, more young people were sleeping too little. In 1991, 72% of 15-year-olds slept more than 7 hours per night. In 2012 this was only 63%.
Although the reason is not known, the researchers believe that there is a link between young people’s use of the Internet and social media. The decrease seems to be somewhat stable at this moment.
Too little sleep affects the health of young people. It causes various health problems, both mental and medical. In addition, lack of sleep can have a negative effect on school performance, weight and susceptibility to addictions.
For this study, 270,000 young people between the ages of 13 and 18 were asked to report on their sleep duration. The study was published in the journal Pediatrics.
Try it yourself
The tone of voice-words “The author’s tone of voice seems…”
Below the dualities is a list of describing words, meant to describe the tone of voice.
We mark the words that apply to the text (max. four words)
The lists of words differ per expertise field.
A text contains different elements. Some of these elements have a different style. For example, a quote or a theoretical background in an editorial.
In the format, there is a place for these exceptions. This is how the team knows why this part has a different style!
Additional information and sources
Below ‘Additional information and sources’ there’s the space for everything the translator or project manager wants to share with the whole team.
Common notes are:
– Relevant sources
– Context about the text
– Explanation on how we’re going to translate
Now you know how to analyse a text, how our format is structured and how you can use it during translations or when revising.