Jim Tyson, guest-blogging at Naked Translations, has an interesting discussion of the usefulness of linguistics for translators:

Most linguistic theories involve several levels of analysis of text (I use text here to include transcriptions of speech). For example texts can be analysed from the point of view of phonology – the organised system of sounds in a language. They can be analysed from the point of view of morphology – the way that words in a language can be analysed into meaningful units (or not, as the case may be). Then there’s syntax: the analysis of words organised into sentences; semantics – the analysis of the meaning of words and sentences; pragmatics – what people achieve by the use of sentences; and there’s discourse – the analysis of sentences organised into larger texts. One popular conception of the task of translation is the transfer of a structure in a source language to a structure in a target language. What are these structures that are transferred?

Lots of good examples (even though I wish he hadn’t mentioned Chomsky as the linguist par excellence).


  1. While I think that it is possible for good interpreters and translators to have no knowledge of formal linguistics they can certainly appreciate their work a little more if they do.
    In the late 1980’s when businessmen and students from Mainland China were first coming to the United States, I remember talking to a Chinese gentleman at the local park-and-ride. He wanted to know what bus would take him to Sea-Tac Airport but he also told me that he was from “The Peoples Republic of China” and that “I stay with American house.” What he really meant to say was “I am staying with an American family.” Whereas “house” and “family” are two distinct words in English they overlap in Chinese and Vietnamese in one word. In certain contexts, their words for “house” can also mean “family”
    This is a phenomenon known in linguistics as “interference”. Anyone learning a foreign language makes these kinds of mistakes once and awhile. It usually takes about five to ten years to learn how to say everything in another language using the correct syntax and vocabulary of that language.

  2. Jimmy Ho says

    In certain contexts, their words for “house” can also mean “family”
    The Chinese word is jia 家 (Cantonese ga): family, household, home (as in huijia 回家 “go home”). To be clear, the word can never mean the house as a construction (that would be fangwu 房屋 or other related words).

  3. Jimmy Ho says

    After reading Tyson’s post, I was about to comment on his Chinese example (“haizi maile shu” 孩子买了书), when I noticed commenter Anders already did:
    haizi mai le shu
    child buy PERF book
    the child bought a book
    That sentence might also mean “The child bought books”. It’s all about context.
    I still do not find this completely satisfying, and I would like to ask native Anglophone readers if explaining the sentence as “the child bought ‘book'” (i.e. “some quantity of the object ‘book'”, just like “the child bought milk/chocolate, etc.”) is any clearer.
    This is called “partitif” in French, but I find myself unable to formulate it more intelligibly in English. I am no linguist at all, but as far as I know, “partitif” (or its English equivalent) is a rather traditionnal grammatical notion.
    (The rendering of “shu, haizi mai le” as merely “The child bought the book” is also problematic, in my opinion: depending on the context, it might as well be “the book, the child bought it”; the necessary information for the emphasis on “the book” is already “encoded” in the source sentence.)

  4. Jimmy Ho says

    (Of course, in the same example, the fact that “Chinese doesn’t have any analogs for the indefinite and definite articles” could be illustrated even more thoroughly by pointing out that the single ‘haizi’ can mean altogether ‘a child’, ‘the child’, ‘children’ or ‘the children’; but as Tyson says, “Notice, and move right on“. Sorry about the triple comment: jamais deux sans trois !)

  5. Jim Tyson says

    Thanks for the interest everyone.
    Jimmy Ho: you can’t use a bare singular form for a partitive in English when it’s a count noun. So you could say
    The child bought cheese
    But not
    The child bought book
    The solution is to use some.
    Neither can you use front extraposition to topicalise in English as you can in Putongua. So you can’t say
    The book, the child bought it
    (There are extremely forced examples where this is plausible but they are very very marginal.) In English you’d maybe use an it-cleft, for example
    It was that book the child read
    But, actually this topic of definiteness in Putonghua and English is a very complicated one – imagine what happens when you add ba and bei sentences into the mix! Zhaohong Han has investigated some of these in Putonghua-English interlanguage so you might find some interesting examples in her papers.
    The reason for using sentences to illustrate the question is of course that translation only involves considerations of definiteness where discourses – not isoloated words – are concerned and, as I point out, the use of yi-ben is in some cases analogous to the use of an indefinite article in English.
    I’m glad the blog generated some interest and thank you all again for your kind comments.

  6. “shu, haizi mai le” would likely mean “A child bought the book” (as opposed to, say, an adult buying the book)
    Japanese does the same to distinguish background info from new assertion, but marks off the topic with the particle wa. “Hon wa, kodomo ga kaimashita”. Compare “Kodomo wa, hon o kaimashita” (The kid bought a book [not a magazine or something])

  7. Jim Tyson says

    “shu, haizi mai le” would likely mean “A child bought the book” (as opposed to, say, an adult buying the book)
    Can you really have an unmarked noun phrase – ie haizi preverbally like this example with indefinite reference? My understanding has always been that except where there’s some marking any noun phrase in front of the verb is indefinite. Am I wrong?

  8. Jimmy Ho says

    No, you’re right, Jim. I can only repeat myself: the single ‘haizi’ in this sentence can mean altogether ‘a child’, ‘the child’, ‘children’ or ‘the children’ (‘haizi men’ is technically possible to specify plural, but it seems strange in colloquial, informal speech). Without any indication on the context, it is impossible to decide between those four possibilities.
    By the way, thank you for your reply. I have a few things to clarify, but I have to delay a more detailed comment for now.

  9. Jimmy Ho says

    Upon rereading JWB’s comment, this is not as simple as it seems. “A child (not an adult) bought the book” would be a possible translation for shu shi haizi maide 书是孩子买的 (‘shi… de’ syntax).

  10. A really interesting book on translation and the problems caused by differences between language structures is ‘mouse or rat? Translation as negotiation’ by Umberto Eco. I recommend it for study or fun.

  11. Jim Tyson says

    Re the linguisti par excellence…
    I have to admit to being in some respects a Chomskyan but that wasn’t the reason I used his name in the blog, it was simply that I thought he’d be more widely recognised than Kenneth Pike.

  12. Fair enough.

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