To get it right in translations


  • Mind Our English
  • Friday, 20 Jan 2012

RAMBLINGS

Further exploring some words and expressions that do not look right.

I CANNOT help entering the recent fray about translations. Let me introduce two of my favourite translation gaffes: (1) A notice on the door of a room in a hotel in eastern Europe of old, which reads: “The hotel provides free room service. Please take advantage of the housemaid.” (2) A film scene showing a man facing a firing squad. The commandant shouts the order “Fire!” – but the Malay subtitle reads “Api!” You can bet that the unfortunate man will not die from laughter!

Recently our Ministry of Defence contributed some choice English “translations” concerning its staff dress code. The outstanding gaffe must surely be the prohibition on pakaian yang menjolok mata, which is idiomatic in the original Malay version, meaning “clothes that are scanty or revealing”. The unfortunate translation, said to have been computer-aided, was rendered, literally, as “clothes that poke the eyes”. That prohibition is easy to remember: don’t dress like a porcupine!

Good translations necessitate that the translator be savvy in the grammar and idiom of the two languages involved. For the purpose of MOE, however, a good working knowledge of just one language, English, suffices. Even then gaffes or quirky constructions may and do occur.

The favourable response to my last article, The Rite Write, encouraged me to do this follow-up, written in the same vein.

There + verb ‘to be’

Which is correct: “There is a pen and four pencils on the table” OR “There are a pen and four pencils on the table”? In short, is it “There is ...” or “There are ...”? Questions of this type have been raised several times in the MOE page. They are a matter of great import, involving subject-verb agreement. There are several interpretations and prescriptions on the usage. Let me try to put things in perspective by first examining the two key words before going into a discussion at greater length.

The verbs is/are are one set of the singular and plural forms of the verb “to be”, and constructions involving the set apply just as well to constructions involving the other conjugational forms, viz. was/were and has been/have been. (The same consideration holds for verbs such as exists/exist, remains/remain, lives/live, etc.)

Secondly, the word there can function in several ways: (1) as a noun or pronoun – it is strange that Concise Oxford English Dictionary (11th ed., 2004) does not admit the word as a noun or pronoun – meaning “that place” or standing in for “that place”, e.g. “The smoke comes from there” and “It is only half a mile from here to there”; and (2) as an adverb, meaning “in that place, at that spot, on that site”, e.g. “The missing book has all the while been there, on that desk.”

There are, however, other interpretations in the parsing of the word there, as succinctly illustrated in Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, 1989. It is a noun meaning “that state of condition”, as in: “I’ll introduce you to her, but you’re on your own from there on.” It is a pronoun used to introduce a sentence or clause in which the verb comes before its subject or has no complement, as in: “There is no hope.” It is an interjection, an exclamation used to express satisfaction, relief, encouragement, consolations, etc., as in: “There! It’s done.”

Our focus is on the structure, “There is ...” and “There are ...”, which is followed by subject and verb in a reversed order, as in “There is a book on the table.” Such a “grammatically marked structure ... (is) typically used to express a proposition that someone or something exists”; and, in such structure, the unstressed there is used as a dummy subject followed by the verb “to be” (Chalker, S. & Weiner, E., 1998. Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, p.142). Swan gives a similar interpretation – that there is used as a kind of preparatory subject, and the real subject is put after the verb (M. Swan, 2005. Practical English Usage, p.574 #587). There are many instances where “There is ...” is followed by a plural subject, giving the impression that there is subconsciously regarded as a noun (therefore singular), hence as the subject of the sentence (Vallins, G.H., 1951, 15th printing 1968. Good English. London: Pan Books Ltd. p.23; Partridge, E., 1973. Usage and Abusage. Penguin Books. p.331), Swan (cited above) writes that that there are is used with plural subjects, but that there’s (shortened from there is) can begin sentences with plural subjects in informal speech (my underline), e.g. “There’s two policemen at the door, Dad.” and “There’s some grapes in the fridge, if you’re still hungry.”

The above constructions are examples of an inverted construction, where the normal subject-verb order (“a book is there on the table”) is reversed to a verb-subject order (“there is a book on the table”). In such constructions, “the use of there as an introductory word is an idiom of the English language. When thus used, there loses any meaning of place and may simply be parsed as an introductory adverb” (Tipping, L., 1935. Matriculation English Grammar of Modern English Usage. London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd. p.234).

With the use of the introductory there in inverted constructions, the form “There is ...” is used with a singular subject (There is a pen on the table) and the form “There are ...” with a plural subject (There are several pens on the table). What if the subject is compounded of singular and plural? Some questions of more interest than importance may arise (Fowler, H.W., 1977. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. 2nd ed., rev. Ernest Gowers. Oxford University Press. p.404). Swan (loc. cit.) prescribes the use of the form “There is ...” when the first noun in the compound subject is singular (e.g. There was a sofa and two chairs), but the form “There are ...” when the first noun is plural (e.g. There were two chairs and a sofa). On the other hand, Fowler (loc. cit.) favours the use of the form “There are ...” for a compound subject, regardless of the relative positions of the singular and plural nouns making up the compound subject.

How, then, does one advise a fellow-learner on the usage of the “There is ...” and “There are ...” forms (and other allied constructions)? I can only outline some observations and my own preferences: (1) In an inverted construction opening with the form “There is ...” or “There are ...”, the word there is an introductory adverb and, therefore, cannot really be considered the subject of the sentence. (2) The singular verb is used with a singular subject and a plural verb with a plural subject. (3) A subject compounded of singular and plural, is, grammatically speaking, plural regardless of the relative position of the singular element – so that the use of the singular verb for a compound subject headed by the singular element must be considered an informal construction.

Further examples of unbalanced construction

Turn to the obituary page of a local daily and you will find a glaring example of an unbalanced construction. It reads as follows: “The following must be produced: 1. Photocopy of Death Certificate/Burial permit. 2. Identity card of person placing the advertisement. 3. All obituary ads must be prepaid. 4. Those placing announcements on behalf of the deceased’s family, an authorisation letter must be produced.” Note that the itemisation does not list items of the same grammatical construction. Items 1 and 2 are noun phrases, but Items 3 and 4 are sentences (aside from the fact that the sentence being Item 4 is ungrammatical). For consistency, Item 3 could be amended to a noun phrase (e.g. proof of payment for the obituary advertisement), and Item 4 to another noun phrase (e.g. an authorisation letter from those placing the announcement on behalf of the deceased’s family).

Another example comes from, of all places, a local training institute which conducts the ill-worded “Project Management Professional (PMP) Preparation Training”. Its flyer reads as follows: “At the end of the course, participants are able to: *Details of the 9 knowledge areas *How questions are asked and how to answer them (Tips) *Watch out for the trend in the questions in the exam (Tips) *How to apply and qualify for the exam”.

The listed items are differently constructed grammatically. The introductory statement properly links with only Item 3, thus: “At the end of the course, participants are able to ::** watch out for the trend in the questions in the exam.” Need I say more?

Closing notes

I must have struck a chord with my last article, The Rite Write (MOE, Jan 6), which met with favourable response, both verbally and via e-mail, to which I feel I must, in turn, respond.

Reader Ivan Ho’s e-mail to the co-ordinator of the MOE column reads as follows: “Among followers of MOE, I am sure I am not alone in wishing to know something of Dr Lim Chin Lam who is such an erudite contributor to your column. I am especially intrigued what the ‘Dr’ in his name stands for. Does he hold a degree in medicine or is he a PhD holder? It is quite common for your column, at the end of articles by some of your article contributors, to provide a thumbnail CV of the writer. Is it possible to do that with the next article by Dr Lim? He would have to agree first, of course.”

In reply, the “erudite contributor” would have liked to remain a mystery man – but no longer if the MOE co-ordinator decides to print this reply. I am a scientist by vocation and a dabbler in the English language by avocation. I have a pass degree in Botany and Chemistry, followed by an honours degree in Chemistry, from the then University of Malaya in Singapore. My PhD is in Food Science from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland. My substantive employment, until retirement, was as a chemist-cum-food scientist and technologist. How come the foray into the English language? I became fascinated by the language from primary school days, when I developed an abiding interest in it. I have been an earnest learner of the language since then.

Reader Terence Reutens’ e-mail to MOE reads as follows: “I think the good Doctor Lim Chin Lam may have erred when he parsed the title of his recent article The Rite Write. In the first paragraph he wrote: ‘The first word, the, is an indefinite article and there is no quarrel about it.’ In my grammar class of yore the grammar articles were drilled into me with this couplet: ‘A, an indefinitely they go, but the remains definitely so.’ The is a determiner called the definite article (Thomson, D., editor, 1995. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 9th edition).

“For the record, I am always on the look-out for the Doctor’s succulent pieces (no one writes like him anymore as the Fowlers have passed on) on the English language which has languished lamentably in our country.”

Yes, I have erred: the is definitely a definite article, not an indefinite article as I absent-mindedly wrote; and I am grateful to have the error pointed out. Even so, Mr Reutens is lavish in his praise, describing my articles as “succulent pieces”, which I take as an opulent compliment. As to his likening me to the Fowlers – my cup of joy runneth over! Thank you, Mr Reutens.


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