Guest Article: The Disease of Gobbledygook

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Yup, summer is unquestionably on the way. It's still cool at night, which is a relief, but my early-morning walks with the dogs are no longer in darkness: The sun is up, and often fiercely hot!

This time, though, I was able to get the blog written without getting all hot and bothered myself: Dr Valerie Henitiuk, associate director of the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia, was kind enough to grant me permission to publish this article from the Winter 2004/5 issue of the BCLT's excellent journal, "In Other Words." The article is copyright In Other Words, and is reproduced below with only minor typographical corrections.

Note that I do not agree with everything he says, and in fact strongly disagree in a few details, but I'm confident you'll find it very worth the reading. I did!


The translator's duty to use plain English
Arthur Lindsay

THE DISEASE OF GOBBLEDYGOOK

Gobbledygook is a highly infectious, permanently disabling disease, unresponsive to antibiotics, that sooner or later strikes down all who do not have to earn their crust by doing real work. Endemic at institutions of what, for want of a more appropriate and less polite term, we call higher learning, it attains truly epidemic proportions wherever bureaucracy is rife. Nor is there any cure known to medical science for logorrhea and its twin, verbal flatulence.

Communities particularly at risk from these disorders are officials (also known as bureaucretins) of every kind, including those who aspire to that status; politicians of every political colour in any political system; academics in all fields of study, especially in the so-called natural and social sciences; media people, particularly those who make more money than they earn from words in radio, television, and advertising; most teachers and other know-alls; many among those regarded as prominent personages; and practically all who hope to achieve fame or notoriety in any walk of life.

All who have something worth communicating must studiously avoid this disease. Avoidance calls for a clear head and a well-developed self-critical sense of all inappropriate, irrelevant, inflated, spurious, and ambiguous verbiage. Above all, it demands self-discipline.

POOR SOURCE TEXTS

As translators, we all too often face source texts that offend against good sense and good taste when rendered into English. Can we simply shut our eyes to their failings and, like those who take the view that a scientist's responsibility begins and ends with doing scientific work, happily leave the decision about their moral implications to someone else? If this is the principle by which we act, we simply translate the source text almost word for word into the target language, without respect for English usage. In that case, we imply that the author must take all responsibility for form and content, even in a language of which he may have little or no command and in which we are supposed to supply our skills to make up for his lack of these.

This takes too comfortable a view as a way out of what is essentially a non-existent moral dilemma. Yet our response has to do with our survival as a profession. Garbage in = garbage out is exactly what the translation machine can produce, faster and more efficiently than any human being. But if that were a translator's sole function, we would be doomed to extinction.

With John Kenneth Galbraith. I am convinced that "there are no important propositions that cannot be stated in plain English." I would add to this that the more complex a subject happens to be, the more straightforward must be the language used.

WHAT IS PLAIN ENGLISH?

At the beginning of 1986, English Today, a quarterly international review of the English language, devoted an issue to the subject of Plain English and the constant need to fight gobbledygook. In an article on the position in the United States, Professor Dayananda had this to say: 'Anyone can write plain English. The best writers generally hold a handful of principles in common, rules that can profit all who pick up a pen.' Even if Dayananda's pen was more metaphorical than real, these rules are real enough and have to do with readability, i.e. 'words, sentences, paragraphs, and tone...'

On readability, he made four main points. These are worth quoting in full:

Prefer the shorter word to the longer. Use simple, everyday words rather than fancy ones. Prefer verbs to nouns and adjectives. Prefer the specific word to the general. If you can use a three-syllable word, do not use a four-syllable one.
Write short sentences with an average of no more than twenty words. Use the active voice rather than the passive. Be a miser with compound and complex sentences, and a spendthrift with simple sentences. If you can say something in four short sentences, don't say it in one long sentence.
Write short paragraphs with an average of about 75 words. Avoid paragraphs that exceed five typed lines for business letters and ten lines for longer compositions. A short paragraph has more air and white space around it, making it easier to read. If you can say something in four sentences, do not say it in five.
Write with the ear. A sentence may look correct on paper but its cadence may jar. Does the sentence sound like good conversation or like pompous speech? Listen to your sentences in your head as you write, and do not write anything that you could not comfortably say.

In his article, Dayananda referred to a readability test developed by Dr Rudolf Flesch, with a scoring range from 0 to 100. 60 is the minimum a text has to score before it can be regarded as plain English. In this test, the Reader's Digest scores 65, Time magazine 52, and the Harvard Law Review 32. An interesting sidelight on these scores is the way they relate to school grades: 8th and 9th grade 60 to 70, 10th to 12th grade 50 to 60, college graduates 0 to 30. Nonetheless, for a sceptic about statistics that try to quantify the unquantifiable, this does suggest that the statement I made at the beginning about the prevalence of gobbledygook among academics is perhaps not all that wide of the mark.

I have heard it said that, in the USA, there is nothing, no matter how far-fetched, for which there is not some kind of committee or association. As never more than a visitor to that country, I cannot express an opinion on this. But I know that the National Council of Teachers of English has a Committee on Public Doublespeak. This has been making its Doublespeak Award annually since 1974 to 'American public figures who have perpetrated language that is grossly unfactual, deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-contradictory.' In 1983, the winner of this doubtful honour was President Reagan; in 1984, it was the turn of the US State Department. As some of our transatlantic cousins may read this essay, discretion demands that I refrain from quoting the texts for which the awards were made.

EXAMPLES OF GOBBLEDYGOOK

Dayananda quotes some examples of such 'terminological gibberish versus plain English':

  • negative patient-care outcome: death
  • termination with extreme prejudice: killing someone
  • portable hand-held communication inscriber: pencil
  • revenue-enhancement tax-base erosion control: tax increase
  • atmospheric deposition of anthropogenerically derived acid substances: acid rain
  • wood interdental stimulator: toothpick
  • energetic disassembly: explosion
  • recreational eco-unit: your garden
  • collateral damage: civilian casualties in nuclear war

AMBIGUITY

In his witty classic Usage and Abusage, Eric Partridge, the urbane New Zealander who ranks with Fowler, Onions, and Gowers among the twentieth century's truly great teachers of the English language, wrote that 'ambiguity springs from woolly and muddled thinking; from a hasty fitting together of words to the thought; from ignorance of the right uses of words; from defective punctuation; and from a multiplicity of minor causes.'

Sir Ernest Gowers, the author of The Complete Plain Words, wrote: 'A scientist or technician may have the most brilliant ideas, but if he cannot express them in plain words readily understood by others, he and his ideas are worthless.' These rules apply not only to authors. They are equally valid where the translator acts as mediator between author and reader.

As I understand our function, it is to take a text in a language in which the reader's skills are inadequate or inexistent and make it intelligible to that reader. In other words, the reader can understand the source text only as a result of our intervention. If our text causes confusion, because we have kept too close to the form used by the author in the source text or because the author's use of language is woolly and we do not clarify it in the filtering process of translation, then we are plainly failing in our professional duty.

SOME CHARACTERISTICS OF ENGLISH GRAMMAR

For an essay intended for translators it seems a commonplace to dare point out that every language has its own characteristic form and rules that generally cannot be reproduced in any other. Among the peculiarities of English is the fact that it is a largely uninflected language. Hence it has a very simple grammatical structure, a large number of rules, and an even greater number of exceptions to those rules. These characteristics may also, of course, account for the fact that it is so rich in idioms.

To avoid ambiguity, its loose and extremely flexible grammatical framework imposes an iron discipline on those who use it: in the way they construct a sentence. One can be all too easily tempted to oversimplify and say that it is all a matter of logical or idiomatic word sequence, and of proper punctuation. Yes, of course. that's all it is! But as usual the devil is in the details.

THE PROBLEM OF EMPHASIS...

To illustrate this, let us take a simple example, the complete and perfectly grammatical sentence: 'I never take milk in my tea.' One need not be a professor of English to recognize that there are at least seven variant readings, and that the precise meaning depends on where you put the emphasis in this string of seven words that contains a total of only 21 letters.

Emphasis is only rarely shown in print and tends to make a text awkward, restless, irritating to read. And the means for achieving emphasis are anything but numerous: underlining, capitals, bold type, and italics.

Underlining is rarely if ever used in print. And because English is a lower-case language, capitals should be used with the utmost restraint, even in headings and titles. Bold type is permissible in titles and headings, but should generally be avoided in body text. That leaves only italics, which may be used for proprietary names, but normal type starting with capital letters is better; italics are permissible only where emphasis is essential for comprehension and no other means are available.

...AND ITS SOLUTION

The only cure, therefore, is to use normal linguistic means. These are: logical construction, short sentences, correct punctuation, and an unambiguous choice of words.

The simplest test of logical construction is to leave out all punctuation in a sentence, except for full stops or, as they are known on the other side of the Great Water, periods. Then check whether the sentence is still unambiguous. If it is, and if you will pardon my mixed metaphors, insert only the least amount of punctuation to give the reader's eye the smallest number of essential rests to catch his/her breath. If the text is not lucid and unambiguous, keep rewriting it until it is.

Commas and semicolons are the basic breathing marks available to us, but they should be used sparingly, and omitted altogether where they add nothing to the readability of a text. When there are too many of them, they merely sow confusion and irritate the reader.

Not only is a logical word sequence important, but also the proper choice of words. Legal documents can often be quoted as classic examples of what not to do in terms of plain English, but they do at least obey one fundamental rule: always use the same term for the same thing, even if you have to repeat it a dozen times in a sentence, and let that term stand for only that thing and no other.

SINS OF TEACHERS

I think it was George Bernard Shaw, writing about Chesterton, who stated the belief that, because it requires a perfect command of the language and takes a lifetime to perfect, the essay is the highest form of literature. He added the provocative comment that teachers of English merely display their own pitiful ignorance when they expect the callow young at schools and universities to be capable of writing essays.

I remember an English master at my grammar school telling us never to use the same word twice in a sentence. One pupil innocently asked whether this also applied to pronouns, the definite and indefinite articles, prepositions, conjunctions, and to auxiliary verbs. When he was told that, of course, these were exceptions to this rule, he persevered by asking why they should be exempt, as the frequency with which precisely these words occurred was far higher than that of any particular noun or verb.

I believe that the point my contemporary made is valid. Nothing leads to more ambiguity and confusion than circumlocution, the use of different terms for the same thing. This is as true in technical and scientific texts as it is in more literary texts. Any text that the reader cannot understand at first reading is ill-made. If we use different words to refer to the same thing, the reader – though he may be a specialist in the subject with which the text deals – usually has to reread it. In my view that is proof that the author and/or translator has failed in the prime duty of lucidly communicating information.

THE PURPOSE OF LANGUAGE

Language is too important to be used for any purpose other than to convey meaning, i.e. for human communication. Except for so rare a genius as Dylan Thomas who, a typical Welshman, revelled in the music he could compose with the sounds of words, it should never be an end in itself but a means by which people communicate. Words should express ideas, information, thoughts. They may instruct or amuse. But language should never, not even by implication, be used as a means of providing the author with an ego-trip. Nor, for that matter, should translators misuse it for their self-glorification by producing a text whose meaning is impenetrable to all but a few.

To translate a text, the translator must understand it. If he or she simply uses long words because the author does so in the source text, to cloak ignorance or to pretend to membership of a small select coterie supposed capable of understanding a recondite subject, we have a duty to stigmatize this as an admission of failure and proof of guilt.

FACTS AND WORDS

In a lecture I heard given by an experienced translator of fiction, she recalled, an occasion when she was taken to task by her publisher for a factual inaccuracy in a translation. She replied that she had faithfully translated the source text. I think that the publisher's answer should be a classic lesson to us all: 'The author may be a damned fool, but is that a good enough reason why you should be one as well?' That, I suggest, applies every bit as much to the author's use of language as it does to the author's facts.

DO'S...

In the translation of a technical or scientific text, we are not always in a position to check the author's facts. Nor can or should we attempt to reduce a text of that kind to the linguistic level of a popular article in Reader's Digest or Time. But we have a duty, both to the author and the reader, and not least to ourselves as passably intelligent human beings, to ensure that the language is as intelligible, simple, and straightforward as we can make it, devoid of unnecessary jargon and vogue words: grammatically correct, logically constructed, and correctly punctuated. Superb examples of the practice of this principle of lucidity are the articles that appear in the science and technology section of The Economist.

In translation as in military matters it is a sound principle to use the least force compatible with achieving one's objective as quickly as possible. As translators, our objective is to enable the reader to understand the subject matter we are translating. Hence simplicity of language is obviously the most important weapon in our armoury. Further, I submit that the more complex the subject, the greater is the need for plain English. Even if the author is incapable of simplicity in the source text, in the target language this duty devolves upon us, since we are those who must moderate between author and reader.

...AND DON'TS

I have already briefly referred to vogue words and jargon, but special mention deserves to be made to the Germanic habit of forming long compound words, both hyphenated and, particularly on the other side of the Atlantic, unhyphenated: nouns, adjectives, and verbs. In recent years I have watched with growing unease the spread of this clumsy custom among the linguistically innocent, ignorant, insensitive, and downright incompetent. Among these I must specifically mention those who write computer and software manuals. The habit seems to stem from the assumption that it saves space and time, and provides the brevity that ensures greater clarity. I recently found such a gem in what had the temerity to pretend to be a scientific text, which used a string of no fewer than five adjectives and adjectival nouns to qualify the sixth word, a noun! Dayananda's list of terminological gibberish which I have quoted also includes other all-too-typical examples.

In German, this system is accepted and long-established, though not more than three such terms should ever be combined to form a single word. But this type of construction is basically foreign to modern English and its structure. And even in German, compound nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs lead to ambiguity and confusion more often than to clarity; all the more so in English.

I do not want to create the impression of being a narrow-minded purist, a puritan, reactionary, or national chauvinist, or that I demand unreasonable perfection. There are certain occasions when such a compound is just what one needs for a snappy advertising text. But that, as a rule, is about as far as I am prepared to go to reconcile the use of such composites with my linguistic conscience.

THE FUNCTION OF LANGUAGE

Language is both one of the roots and a major tool of creative human genius. It is both yardstick and mirror of culture. Language limited to purely oral communication can be a cultural transmitter only within severely restricted bounds of time and space. In the absence of literacy, language tends to remain a clumsy, primitive tool; and literature, by definition, is impossible.

Literacy is more than the mere ability to read and write; it demands an understanding of how, in all its many manifestations, our language really functions. Literature, therefore, is not only the finest use to which language may be put, but it is surely among the highest expressions of human genius.

Universities claim for themselves the title of torchbearers of culture. But if 'higher education' as dispensed by them fails to teach linguistic skills or to accord to language the place it properly deserves as the vehicle of culture, then our civilization is doomed to become a historical dead-end, and millennia of creative labour, made possible only by the ability to communicate in writing with other members of the human race beyond time and place, will end with the destruction of that ability, because of our neglect of this distinctively human means of communication.

THE TRANSLATOR'S RESPONSIBILITY

I submit that the means now available to us of instant oral communication around the globe could well precipitate this neglect, destroy our ability to communicate beyond our own time and space, and give rise to a new illiteracy based exclusively on oral communication which, though instant, is essentially evanescent, impermanent. Our work as translators is therefore a challenge and an opportunity, because it charges us with the responsibility for preventing that destruction.

In 1966, Alex Gode van Aesch wrote: 'Pity the man who forgets that technical literature is a part of literature.'

Let me add to this that clarity is the hallmark of literature. In English literature, clarity demands the use of plain English.

CONCLUSION

Any fool can design an engine with a dozen gears, and somehow make it work. But it takes a highly competent engineer to achieve the same or greater mechanical efficiency by means of a single pair of gears and a couple of levers.

In a fundamental sense, much the same principle applies to language. And that happens to be our particular tool of trade.


Entire content copyright 2004 In Other Words, British Centre for Literary Translation, University of East Anglia
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