As an editor and translator with years of experience in correcting English written by non-native speakers, I have come across certain areas that seem to be major pitfalls for Chinese speakers when writing in English. These mistakes are usually the writer's Chinese grammar or diction unconsciously coming out in their English exposition, or perhaps simply a unfamiliarity with English composition at its higher levels.
This monthly column can teach you to spot these common writing pitfalls and thus avoid having them find their way into your English composition. It will not be a list of grammar rules to follow, but instead a look into how we can improve the style and force of our English writing.
Today's post is about how non-native English speakers can learn to write in a way that ensures their sentences—and therefore their ideas—flow from one to the next. For ESL writers this means paying attention to the logical progression of their ideas, being clear with the topic of each paragraph, and pruning away unnecessary and confusing information to leave behind a clear, logical sequence of ideas for the reader to enjoy. To get a better understanding what we are talking about, let's take a look at this example written in Chinese:
Now first let's be clear: The paragraph works in the language in which it was written by communicating its ideas in a clear, readable fashion; however, if we were to translate the report into English and break it down into its composite parts in the order that they were written, we would get something like this:
1，Typhoon brings damage to many parks in china
2，Typhoon brings damage to Barclay Memorial Park in Lishui
3，Volunteers contact the local borough head
4，Volunteers clean up park
5，Volunteers awarded certificate of appreciation
Looking at these five parts, one can point out some potential problems such as: repetition of similar ideas/events (1&2), or the inclusion of ideas/events tangent to main topic (1&3). Finally, we discover that the topic of paragraph , its raison d'être, is not clear. Where does the main emphasis of the paragraph lie? Is it damage to parks in china? Damage to the park in Lishui? The volunteers' cooperation with the borough?
Of course, one could argue that since we have only extrapolated the bare-bones meaning of each section of the paragraph, repetition and vagueness are bound to be the result and such problems would invariably be corrected in a more accurate and flowing translation. However, as we see below in this translation by a non-native speaker, this is not the case:
In the aftermath of Typhoon Noul, downed trees and broken branches were seen in many parks throughout china, including Barclay Memorial Park in East District of Lishui City. To help clean up their community, local volunteers contacted the East District Supervisor and mobilized to clean up Barclay Memorial Park. To thank the volunteers for their efforts, the East District Supervisor awarded these volunteers with a Certificate of Appreciation.
While one could argue this translation does exhibit a linear and therefore logical progression of events, the problem with the above translation is that its ideas don't seem to work with one another, but instead stand independent of each other. It seems that with every sentence the author is starting over. Each sentence presents an idea, but fails to point the reader to the central idea or theme; in other words, information is being presented, but in a way that is neither efficient, nor focused.
The translator of the above was asked to redo the paragraph and on rewrite she came up with the below:
In the aftermath of Typhoon Noul, local volunteers in Lishui's East District took the initiative to help clean up Barclay Memorial Park. In this cleanup effort, more than 60 volunteers, young and old alike, worked together to remove downed trees and broken branches, restoring the park to its original state. Recognizing the volunteers' efforts, East District Supervisor awarded the volunteers with a Certificate of Appreciation.
After the changes, we see the translation has a much better flow and structure to it. Right away the translation zeros in on the main focus of the report—the park in Lishui—and no longer divides the reader's attention with other tangential information such as “many parks in china were affected”. Next, with the topic established, the translator goes on the flesh out the details with a description of who was there and what happened. Here the translator has expanded on her original translation of “local volunteers” to “more than 60 volunteers, young and old alike”. I believe the extra information, despite being more wordy, helps bring color to the description and does not detract from the overall flow of the report. Finally, the author finishes with a nice conclusion that describes the results of the volunteers' actions—while wisely omitting the unnecessary information of how the volunteers got in contact with the east district supervisor.
Overall, we see that in this version there are no wasted sentences or ideas. Each sentence is connected to the previous one in a clear sequence, with all sentences pointing to the main topic. Therefore the next time you are writing or translating, try to ask yourself:
“What is the point of this sentence/paragraph?”
“Do I really need this information?”
“Will this information sharpen or dull my message to my readers?”
Questions like this will help ensure that your translation or original work captures your reader’s attention and, just as importantly, keeps him or her reading till the end.