By Curtis R. Brautigam
There seems to be a lot of discussion recently of translation issues and Web sites in poorly-written English. We need to realize that there are certain peculiar characteristics of the English language which cause problems for non-native English speakers.
1) The verb-adverb combination is peculiar to English, as illustrated by constructions such as "turn on," "turn off," "mark up," or "mark down". In other languages, single specific verbs are used in place of the English verb-adverb combinations. A construction such as "turn off" is highly problematic because in English, it has numerous meanings. You can turn off a light, or you can use the word "turn off" in the sense of something being repulsive. For example, if you want to translate "turn off" in the sense of turning off a light in other languages, in French, it would be "eteindre"; in Spanish, it would be "apagar"; in Russian, it would be "vyklyuchit'"; in Hebrew, it would be "le-kabot." You would use a different verb in the sense of turning off a computer. This is one peculiar aspect of the English language that non-native speakers have a hard time grasping.
2) Split infinitives seem to have become accepted English usage. In other languages, the verb infinitive has a specific form that identifies it as such. The adverb would be used after the infinitive.
3) English syntax is very inflexible compared to other languages. English goes by a very strict subject-verb-object structure. Other languages are much more flexible. For instance, in Hebrew or Russian, the object can precede the verb for the purpose of emphasis (in Russian, the object is identified as such by means of the cases indicating direct or indirect object). Also, pronouns must be used with the verbs; this is not the case in other languages. For instance, in Spanish, Italian, or even Polish, you do not need to use the pronouns with the verb because the verb endings indicate the person. Then, of course, the syntax of German and Dutch is in a category of its own, with verbs coming at the end of sentences under certain circumstances.
4) Many languages do not use articles. Virtually all Western European languages use articles. The Slavic languages (with the exception of Macedonian and Bulgarian) do not use articles--this causes difficulties for people with Slavic mother tongues learning English. Hebrew and Arabic have definite articles, but not indefinite articles. Some languages do not use the present tense of the verb "to be", such as Hebrew and Russian.
5) Another difficulty for non-native English speakers is the fact that English is not a phonetic language. It is probably one of the most unphonetic languages in the world (French probably comes close to English in its lack of phoneticity).
6) Some English vocabulary is peculiar. Most European languages have two verbs with the sense of "to know," one meaning to know a person in the sense of friendship or acquaintance (French, connaitre; German, kennen; Spanish, conocer, Russian, poznakomit'), and other meaning to know facts (French, savoir; German, wissen; Spanish, saber; Russian, znat'). There are two words for "law" in most European languages, one in the sense of a piece of legislation (French, loi; German, Gesetz; Spanish, ley; Italian: legge; Russian, zakon) and the other in the sense of the discipline of law (French, droit; German, Recht; Spanish, derecho; Italian, diritto; Russian, pravo). These two distinctions are even found in Hebrew, a non-Indo-European language.
7) While English does not have as many grammatical inflections as other languages (thus simplifying the grammar enormously), English verbs can pose problems. The problematic areas are the enormous use of auxiliary verbs to convey modes (subjunctive and conditional) that are indicated in other languages by simple verb endings, and the large number of irregular verbs in English. It seems that English has more irregular verbs than other languages with which I am familiar.
American English especially has a tendency to convert nouns to verbs.
8) This is problematic for speakers of other languages who cannot as easily convert nouns to verbs. Noun combinations such as "light emitter diode", as well as compound nouns, also pose problems for speakers of other languages
9) Another peculiarity of English is the verb "to do." In many languages, the verb "to do" and "to make" have the same meaning (French, faire; Spanish, hacer; Russian, delat'; Hebrew, la-asot). In English, they are separate. In addition, the use of the verb "to do" in such constructions as "Do you speak English?" causes problems for non-native English speakers. This even causes difficulties for speakers of Germanic languages such as German or Dutch, which have separate verbs for "to do" (German, tun; Dutch, doen) and "to make" (German, machen; Dutch, maken), but do not use the verb "to do" in this manner. Instead of the verb "to do," all of these languages simply use the appropriate form of the verb.
10) Much humor has been made of Japanese renderings of the English language. Even though I profess ignorance about Asian languages, it must be stated that the grammatical rules of Asian languages are very different from those of English. The more distinct the grammar is from English, the more difficulty non-native English speakers will have in producing materials in good English. In one job interview, one of my erxercises was to render a paragraph that was written in "Japanese English" into proper English--it wasn't easy. I am sure that native speakers of Chinese or Korean also have a problem with English.
11) All of these peculiarities of English grammar often make it difficult for non-native English speakers to get a full command of the language. It is also difficult when it comes to translating English technical writing into other languages. In fact, the size of the text often increases when one translates from English to many Western European languages (this has implications for text layout and DTP), and it often decreases when one translates from English to Hebrew for instance. These are issues to bear in mind when it comes to the internationalization of technical writing. (I admit ignorance when it comes to Asian and African languages).
Curtis is a frustrated linguist (who happens to be a technical writer) who speaks five languages fluently (English, French, Hebrew, Russian, and Spanish) and is fascinated by differences in languages. His e-mail address is email@example.com