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Why are translators so pedantic? December 9, 2008

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Random musings.

This post has been lingering in my drafts for about two months now. An e-mail yesterday from a colleague on a listserv correcting my German grammar (which frankly wasn’t that bad) on top of the stress of arguing with my client over the word count of my large online survey had me in tears last night, so I decided to finally publish this one.

Back in October it started with a simple off-topic request to one of my translation listservs asking for hotel recommendations in New York City. I responded with the name of a hotel that I have been meaning to try for a while now, and someone responded ripping the English grammar errors on the hotel’s web site. The discussion then morphed into a discussion of English grammar and the ever popular “I can English so I can be translator” whining. Why are translators so pedantic?

Translators are the only people I know who take joy in discussing the use of a single word or phrase for hours on end. Translation is first and foremost a business, so we often can’t afford to spend hours pondering one word. It isn’t like I’m being paid $0.50 a word, which would afford me the time to craft perfectly phrased texts. I generally quickly find the term I need and move on to the next sentence. Discussions on several listservs can span for days, long after the translation has been completed and sent out the door. I don’t have the time to discuss a word for days when the translation is due tomorrow.ย  Seriously, this behavior helps no one.

And to all those of you who are tempted to correct someone’s English or German or grammar or whatever privately due to a post on a listserv, DON’T! It’s rude and extremely presumptuous. Your “helpful correction” might just arrive at a time when the person is burnt out from translating and might not be all that well-received and appreciated. If the person is managing to get their point across let it slide. The way I write on a list often doesn’t reflect the way I would craft a translation. When I write to a listserv I don’t proofread the text three times before sending it. I simply write it and send it.

Thanks for letting me rant. I feel much better now ๐Ÿ™‚



1. Olli - December 9, 2008


Not only between professional translators. Along the years I have spent in the Translators School I have found some people who were extremely pedantic. I remember a guy with who I was going to work with in a project. In that time I was in first year, and he was in second. I made him a suggestion about the project, and his answer was: “Are you correcting me? You are just a guy from first year, so don’t pissed me off”

Amazingly, this kind of people use to make good careers on the University area (Spain sometimes is just crappy…)

I guess sometimes we should be a little bit more humble, and remember we are humans, and so we can commit mistakes ๐Ÿ˜€

2. Kevin Lossner - December 9, 2008

How funny to read this tonight. Earlier in the day one of our pedantic fellows (a German) tried to correct my English in a public forum by telling me I should write “Right-click INTO the window and select the corresponding command from the context menu”. I let that particular bit of brilliance stand uncommented as a monument to why it’s often not a good idea to translate into one’s second language.
I would be surprised if I didn’t have a general reputation as a pedant, but I consider more than the occasional gentle hint to non-native speakers who might embarrass themselves badly to be out of place. If it’s not for publication and I know what is intended, I really don’t care how fractured the sentences are. Of course it’s lovely to read or hear beautifully crafted words, but when I am exchanging ideas with someone from Spain or Egypt, I’m grateful that we can communicate at all.

3. jillsommer - December 9, 2008

@Kevin – wow, that makes me groan. Thanks for adding a little levity to the post. ๐Ÿ™‚ “Right-click into the window…” Man! At least he wasn’t correcting “in der U.S.A.” into the more correct “in den USA.” Because, you know, the world might have ended because I made a grammar mistake and didn’t have someone proofread those two sentences before I hit send. If he had been within range of me I would have probably hit him. I instead chose the high road and, after rewriting a reply twice, deleted the reply without sending it. I totally agree with you. There is a place and time for everything, and I am not about to offer gentle hints to non-native speakers that might offend and/or enrage them. In my case I was enraged. So instead I chose to write about the incident in a public forum and withhold his name to save him the embarrassment.

I’m just happy that most people have no qualms communicating with one another in whatever language they choose. Needless to say I won’t be writing to PT in German ever again, because that is the second time someone there has chosen to privately correct my German.

4. jillsommer - December 9, 2008

For the record, I am aware that my German grammar is lacking. I have never claimed that it was good. That is why I never translate into German. On the other hand, my German vocabulary is quite extensive and I can understand the complexities of numerous difficult texts in German better than most, which is why my clients keep coming back. And my understanding of German grammar is good as well. I just can’t reproduce it for myself ๐Ÿ™‚

5. Kevin Lossner - December 9, 2008

Incessant correction, I know from personal experience, can be harmful to communication. My German grammar was better 25 years ago than it is now, though I still pass as a native when I feel like it. However, I was married for a while to a very pedantic translator who would interrupt the flow of conversation constantly to correct my choice of words, “fix” my grammar, complain that my language was flavored with Palatinate dialects when I was tired or tipsy, etc. As a result, I lost interest in mastering all the grammatical subtleties of the language. And in a practical sense, I’ve found it doesn’t matter, because the authors of most of the technical texts I translate are grammatical cripples in their native language. I sent a job back last week with over 10 pages of comments and corrections to the source text, because the author couldn’t be bothered to proofread a text for a dangerous piece of equipment. But rest assured, I’ll never correct his English unless he tries to “improve” my translation….

6. jillsommer - December 9, 2008

I feel for you, man. I particularly like the sentence “I was married for a while to a very pedantic translator…” That doesn’t sound like fun. I have German friends who complain about their fellow Germans all the time. That is why they are now living in the U.S. In this respect, I don’t think I will ever understand the German mindset. Thanks for commiserating with me! It makes me feel better to know that I am not alone.

7. MT - December 9, 2008

What’s sad is that many times people who correct grammar or who obsess about usage issues are woefully underinformed on those topics and often actually *introduce* errors into a perfectly correct text. Being very interested in language is not the same thing as being an actual expert in grammar and usage, after all.

I really recommend Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage for most everyday bugbears you run into. It’s nice to be able to respond to a pedantic reviewer’s critique with a citation along the lines of, “See p. X of MWDEU under ‘word.'” Because the fact is many language bugbears are out and out falsehoods or urban legends. The Chicago Manual of Style is also enormously helpful in responding to false grammar attacks.

In the end, a good editor is someone who makes as few changes as possible–and then only for things that are actually wrong or that lead to actual misunderstanding. They should also know MWDEU and CMS inside and out, and who understands issues of register, target audience, etc. Very few translators meet these qualifications, yet a surprising number of us fancy ourselves good editors.

We must also keep in mind that English does not have one standard. The first spelling listed for a word is often different in the main dictionaries, much to non-English-speakers’ surprise I think. For instance, “copyeditor” is preferred by AHD but “copy editor” by MW. Relying on the MS Word dictionary is no substitute, either.

Radically altering a translation from one correct translation to another equivalent but arbitrarily different translation just by making all kinds of completely subjective changes is not editing. This is why billing editing on an hourly basis is a mistake: it is a guarantee only that you’ll get a lot of changes, not that you’ll get an improved text.

Also, I suspect a large number of translators actually have mild to pronounced Asperger’s Syndrome. I’m not joking, either:

Maybe Germans have this disorder at a greater rate than other people?

And, last, “word rage” is something they talk about on Language Log from time to time, so I recommend visiting that blog regularly to free oneself from the shackles of all the gobbling grammar turkeys out there. ๐Ÿ™‚

8. Judy Jenner - December 9, 2008

Ha, funny, glad you feel better now. I agree, sometimes things can get quite out of hand on listservs, with folks going on and on about small things. I am usually quite quick and move on, but I have been known to spend one hour on a word (especially when the price per word is right), usually doing my own research. While I admire people’s breadth and depth of knowledge, sometimes it’s a bit much, so that’s where the delete button comes in for me.

And of course there are pedantic folks in all professions; I have worked with sticklers who are physicists, lawyers, journalists, software developers, casino executives, etc. I think, as language professionals, we put a lot of emphasis on the written word because that is what we deal with on an everyday basis. However, that doesn’t give people a free pass to publicly make fun of someone’s grammar or spelling. I agree with you: it’s just bad form. However, if a big company puts out grammar/translation mistakes, we love to post those on our translation mistakes blog!

Hang in there, and remember to use the “delete” button frequently and often.

9. MT - December 9, 2008

Jill–My previous comments were meant to criticize the *other* people who were criticizing *you,* not you at all. Sorry if that came across verbosely, off-topically, or unclearly. I meant to boost you up, since I have had a lifetime of similar experiences and commiserate! :-/ Anyway, get some rest. ๐Ÿ™‚

10. Michael - December 9, 2008

>I have German friends who complain about their fellow Germans all the time. That is why they are now living in the U.S.


11. jillsommer - December 9, 2008

@MT – No offense taken. I knew you weren’t talking about me because you were talking about English, when in fact it was my German that was corrected ๐Ÿ™‚ Your posts are always welcome!

@Judy – Thanks for the encouragement.

@Michael – I can give you the names of three of our fellow translators who have said exactly this to me at one point or another. Heck, that is one of the main reasons *I* moved back. Don’t get me wrong – I love Germany, but the pedantic nature drives me crazy!

12. Corinne McKay - December 9, 2008

I guess that one of the best and worst aspects of our profession is that translators have to be right about everything. In one sense, I think of many of the people I work with as highly reliable, extremely meticulous, almost maniacally detail oriented; qualities that really earn my trust. On the other hand, this can lead to, for example, exchanging 10 e-mails about the use of “that” versus “which,” or debating the correct plural of “euro” for two days on a listserve (no kidding!).

13. Ryan Ginstrom - December 10, 2008

I think of it like this: if we weren’t really into words we probably wouldn’t be translators. Also, only pedants tend to post pedantic diatribes, so there’s a bit of selection bias here. ๐Ÿ™‚

Like how everybody driving seems like a jerk because you only notice the jerks. Unless you’re in LA — they’re all jerks ๐Ÿ˜›

One time a volunteer translation of mine was critiqued in a translation workshop, and half the workshop was spent arguing whether a lesson is “drilled” into you or “drummed” into you, and whether you ride “in” an elevator or “on” an elevator. Who but a pedant would care?

Also, I know it’s petty, but I have to laugh a bit when a Japanese native speaker writes to tell me of an error I’ve made in Japanese, using really horrible English. ๐Ÿ™‚

BTW, translators definitely don’t have the pedant market cornered. You ought to see programmers get going on some esoteric piece of claptrap. Then again, if I could name one professional group that tended more into the Asperger’s spectrum than translators…

14. Kyle in Utrecht - December 10, 2008

“Translators are the only people I know who take joy in discussing the use of a single word or phrase for hours on end.”

Try hanging out with some theoretical linguists for a while, they put us “mere translators” to shame on that particular point.

15. Susanne Aldridge III - December 10, 2008

What do you think comes first – being pedantic or being a translator? I believe being pedantic is often just part of the “job description” – of course not in the way you describe it, but being detail oriented often comes with nit-picky. Don’t tell me you don’t explain to your client that there should be a space between the digit and the unit or that they should not use a doublespace after a period? Or that the unit of electrical current is “A” and not “amps”? And have you never shook your head about the “Whatever…” reaction?
Now, translator and being German – that is the double-whammy of course. Something like “Pedantic Squared” – though I can say for sure it wasn’t the reason why I left Germany. I obviously am German, and the lack of “precision” in the USA (no pun intended) sometimes drives me crazy. Maybe my “clients” are different, that is a possibility ๐Ÿ™‚

16. Kevin Lossner - December 11, 2008

@Susanne: Pedantic Squared, huh? I like that – it fits. However, I must admit that I actually prefer living in Germany in most respects, though I am prone to furious fits about the tax authorities, the way family law is dealt with and a few other things. At least I can take my dog almost everywhere, and I get to live two minutes outside my favorite city in the world. And conversations here tend to be a lot more interesting than with my fellow farmers in Oregon, whose range of topics often didn’t get much past the Bible, guns and livestock.
As for the spacing between digits and units, double spaces after periods, A & more… guilty as charged!

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