Translator as a grammar nazi

It takes some level of obsession to be a good translator. Sure, any translator must be enthuastic about their subject areas and languages in general. This time I’m specifically talking about obsession with grammar, especially target language grammar.

I don’t know how normal people cope with the ever increasing rate of linguistic inaccuracies and general floppyness in their respective mother tongues. For I beleive this is a worldwide phenomenon.  How many times have I seen poorly constructed source text sentences, “its” and “it’s” mixed up, “should of done” used instead of “should have done”?   Young Spanish and Italian speakers tend to use “ke” instead of “que” – perhaps as a result of text messages.  German and other languages are increasingly infested with English words.

As a translator and proofreader, whenever I see a new text, any text, I cannot immediately start reading and mentally processing the message, as at the very glance I’m inadvertedly looking for mistakes. Spelling mistakes, grammatical inaccuracies, you name it. More specifically, in any Hungarian text I’m looking for signs of any incorrect translation (since many texts are actually translated texts).

One recent and widespread phenomenon in Hungarian that really annoys me is the incorrect usage of suffixes. As a general rule, all suffixes are attached to the word stem without any hyphen.  Brüsszel is “Brussels”, Brüsszelben is “in Brussels”. Mazda is a Mazda, Mazdával is “with (a) Mazda”.

There are some exceptions, of course. If the word stem is an acronym, the suffix is preceded with a hyphen: NATO-val means “with NATO”. Also, if the word stem is a foreign word where the last letter is not pronounced, the suffix must conform with the pronunciation rather than spelling, and the suffix is also attached with a hyphen. Typically these words are French proper nouns. Mitterrand-nal is “with Mitterrand”.  (The -val/-vel suffix changes its first vowel to conform with the last consonant of the word it is attached to. The suffix retains its -val/-vel value if the last sound of the preceding word is a vowel: Peugeot-val: “with a Peugeot”.)

These days I’m increasingly confronted with the incorrect, hyphenated usage of such suffixes: in blogs, movie subtitles, forum comments, status updates… and sometimes even in printed press.

And this poses a more general dilemma. Is this a sign of a “deterioration” of the language or simply an “alteration”?  Should translators and other purist fight the new winds or turn around and go with the flow?

I know, no rules are meant to be forever. Early in my translation career the Windows operating system was still new, with no established Hungarian localization available. I was abhorred to see that some other translators translated “file” as fájl. To me, and to most other translators at that time, a simple phonetic transcription seemed a horrible idea. We simply used file, file-t, file-lal, etc. Back then there were some attempts at introducing a Hungarian word for this: állomány. This word already existed with a different meaning, and somehow it didn’t succeed in replacing file. After all, using a monosyllabic word is always much more economical than using a trisyllabic word.

A few years later Windows 95 came out, with a proper Hungarian localization… and “file” was now “officially” translated as fájl.  Yes, it certainly looked awful at first, but I had to realize that it’s actually a much more user-friendly word than file.  The single biggest benefit of the phonetic transcription was that now any suffix could be attached without a hyphen: fájlt, fájllal, etc.

Finally, back to my headache, the recent tendency of hyphenating suffixes unneccessarily and incorrectly. This usage goes against the underlying logic of any linguistic tendency – simplification, that is.

I stand by my right to be a grammar nazi as a translator.


About bancsaba

Discovering the world, step by step, word by word
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