Lost in Translation: When Grammar is Actually Important

Do not tease movie free feeding yor safety so as not to harm monkeys
Creative Commons License photo credit: shanidov

Do you know how you’d write differently if your work was being translated?

When communicating factual, instructional content, I usually say to choose the combination of clarity, brevity, and audience comfort over grammatical purity.

Sometimes this means choosing “who” over “whom.” Sometimes it means leaving out certain syntactical cues.

Syntactical Wha…?

I’ll talk about the cues later. For now, I want to point out that there’s a time to ignore that advice, or at least to think more carefully when you tweak English in order to sound conversational or fit a character limit.

When you expect your writing to be translated.

Sometimes poor grammar causes ambiguity that isn’t obvious until you try to translate it. And if you’re using machine translation (or a combination of human and machine translation), then the problem is intensified.

Something that makes sense to humans, because of contextual and social cues, can make a machine spit out nonsense.

(And, by the way, you’re no longer in charge of whether your work is translated. All it takes is a visit to an online translation site for a reader to check our your document in Azerbaijani, Welsh, or Urdu.)

Syntactical Cues:

These cues are the little words that help a reader understand the structure of a sentence.

For example, here’s a completely understandable sentence that’s missing a cue:

A checkmark on the screen means you passed the test.

So what’s the missing cue? The missing cue is the word “that” after the word “means.”

And even though we understand the sentence without the “that,” adding it would make it easier for translators. In fact, adding the “that” would make it easier for an English-speaker too, IF the extra word doesn’t make it less readable for some other reason.


Let’s look at the sentence a little differently. Imagine a sentences like this:

A checkmark on the screen means “you.”

That’s a complete sentence, and it makes perfect sense. (Maybe a box on the screen means “me.”)

That construction is what makes sense to your brain, and to translation. When there’s no “that,” then your brain expects the next word to be the meaning of the checkmark. So here’s the original sentence again:

A checkmark on the screen means you passed the test.

Your brain is expecting the word “you” to be the meaning of the checkmark. When it isn’t, then your brain has to reassess the situation. But if the “that” was there, then your brain would expect a noun clause to follow, and there’d be no need to reassess.

With translation, each of those “reassess” points is a possibility for error. It’s a place where the text doesn’t do what the translator or translation software expected.

It gets worse

Now let’s add another sentence to the first one:

A checkmark on the screen means you passed the test. This means that you’re fantastic!

We could be in real trouble here, because it’s not really clear what the “this” is referring to. Is “this” the test, the passing of the test, the checkmark, or maybe some combination of all those?

Skipping the noun after a “this” is a forgivable error in English, and often done in tech writing and informal writing. But for translators, it can mean more time and money to sort out. (Remember, they have no idea what you’re writing about, so obvious contextual cues may not be obvious to them.)

Plus, in some languages, a pronoun has to agree in gender and number to the thing it refers to. It simply can’t refer to the entire phrase about having passed a test.

So avoid using “this” or “that” or “these” without a noun referring to the thing that “this” is. You may have to rewrite some sentences, but you’ll be saved a headache, and your writing will be better for English-speakers, too.

A checkmark on the screen means that you passed the test. This checkmark means that you’re fantastic!

Bonus translation tip

Here’s something that’s grammatically ok in English, but may not be in other languages: The fragment introduction to a list.

It’s typical for a list to start out this way:

To make chocolate pudding, you’ll need:

  • Chocolate stuff
  • Pudding stuff
  • A bowl

This list is essentially one long sentence because the intro isn’t complete without the list items. Of course, that’s fine when dealing with English-speakers. We put objects after the verb. Need-Chocolate.

But the sentence structure in other languages might put objects before the verb! How would a translator deal with this list? Could it remain in bullets, or would something have to change? Who decides how to format it at that point?

Instead, make it easy.

To make chocolate pudding, you’ll need three things:

  • Chocolate stuff
  • Pudding stuff
  • A bowl

What about other gotchas in translation? Will machine translation ever get good enough to skip these suggestions?

Buy on Amazon:

The Global English Style Guide (I have this book open on my desk right now and recommend it for anyone who’s even a little interested in writing for a global audience.)


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply