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The Decline of English, the Main Snag of Translation


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The Decline of English, the Main Snag of Translation
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Talk by K.J. Mortimer at the presentation of the NDU Murex series of translations of Lebanese authors, given by Dr. Ameen Rihani to the AUB Book Club on Saturday, 25th March, 2006.

English will soon be a dead language. (Shock among the audience.) It is being murdered by the British and Americans. (Laughs!) The present low level of English is the main problem of good translation. How can you translate bad English into good French or German or Arabic? How can you translate into lucid and readable English without a mastery of its sentence structures and idiom?

The holder of a Ph.D. in Economics from a good American university once showed me an American book for first-year Economics students. The English was so bad that he, an expert in Economics, had needed half an hour to understand the first page.

A leaflet from a British university summer school said that the aim of the school was “to offer participants a range of opportunities for developing further their linguistic awareness and improving their performance in English at an advanced level.” In other words, to improve the English of advanced students.

I read that one course was “to provide information and insights into recent thinking on approaches to the teaching of English as a foreign or second language.” Simply, to explain recent ideas about teaching English to foreigners. A leaflet from a Michigan university said, “The writing component of this class emphasizes fluency and increase in comfort level in expressing one’s ideas in written English.” In other words, and more clearly, “Students are taught to write with ease and fluency.” Also, a level cannot be increased; being infinite in all directions, it can only be raised. The very directors of these schools of English wrote bad English. I wouldn’t advise anyone to go to them. Good English is simple English. How can you translate a text that is a constipation of ideas and a diarrhoea of words?

English is not a classical language with agreement for gender and number, with declension and conjugation, an education in clear logic and meaning. So there is great danger of confusion and word order becomes very important. An advertisement in Time magazine used to say, “More people smoke Marlboro than any other cigarette.” Here people are compared with other cigarettes, so we understand that people are cigarettes and cigarettes smoke Marlboro. Now of course, errors of grammar may not prevent one from understanding short, simple sentences, but they do prevent one understanding long sentences about some involved and complicated subject.

Incidentally, beware of ambiguities of tonic accent when writing; the reader will always notice the comic meaning. Recent posters advertising a refrigerator had something that could be read either as “bottom freezer” or as “bottom freezer”. If the latter, not very nice to sit on!

Native English speakers are sloppy with vocabulary. I understand “an international group of students”, but what are “international students”? Ones with several passports each?

The first time a questionnaire asked me my gender, I answered that I was not a noun or a pronoun and so could not have a gender. A sentinel is generally of male sex, but in French the word “sentinelle” is feminine gender. Sex is a term of biology and gender a term of grammar.

When a news bulletin said that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had been pressurised into doing something, at first I thought she had been pumped up with air and launched into outer space. I suppose it was meant that she had been pressured. Recently I heard that according to George Bush the situation in Iraq was fraught. Not fraught with anything, simply fraught. Absolutely and multiple are two words that are often wrongly used. Nowadays we often hear the expression period of time. This is a fine example of redundancy. Can one have a period of anything else? Can one have a period of space?

Once, BBC English meant model English. But for a whole week I heard, “The Réal football team has sacked their coach.” Also, “The Liberal Social Party has published their manifesto.” I repeatedly heard a news item about Greece’s efforts “to improve its woes”. Is a woe less woeful or more woeful after being improved? Logically it should be the latter.

News editors misuse tenses and employ unrelated active participles instead of the passive participle. When one hears concerning avian ‘flu, “Having said this, all the turkeys have to be slaughtered,” one wonders what the poor birds had said in order to deserve such a terrible fate. For one used to Latin, with declension, agreement and the Ablative Absolute, such a mistake is unlikely. Prime Minister Tony Blair has urged a return to Latin in schools in order to improve the English. Good advice! A little Latin helps with meaning, spelling and construction.

Incidentally, in Lebanon, be careful of words that have different meanings in North American and in British-Commonwealth-European usage. For instructions concerning food or medicine one must point out that the British tablespoon is several times the size of the American tablespoon. The verb to table has two completely opposite meanings which in 1943 caused a dispute between British and American generals in Italy. For the British tabling a proposition meant putting it on the table to deal with it straight away, while for the Americans it meant putting it in a table drawer and forgetting it.

One often hears that grammar is unimportant provided one gets one’s meaning across. But this applies only to spoken language, aided by gesture, facial expression, and intonation. Good grammar is precisely what enables one to get one’s meaning clearly across.

In France, children study French vocabulary, grammar and style. In Germany, they study German. Here they study Arabic. Only in English-speaking countries is it deemed needless for children to study their own language. I admit I was astounded when I found a little girl in France reciting the Future Tense of Aller, systematically learning her own mother tongue. This point is raised by Mary Truss, of whom more anon. “Creative expression” and the abolition of class difference are made a pretext for neglecting grammar. In fact, this neglect perpetuates class distinction; poor children who know only their local dialect or slang will always be limited to low-grade jobs in their home region. This is unjust. It also makes the assimilation of immigrant children practically impossible. What are schools for? In fact, West African parents living in Britain are actually sending their children back to West Africa to learn good English at school!

A comma can completely alter the meaning of a sentence. Compare He killed the dog which caused all the trouble and He killed the dog, which caused all the trouble. In the second sentence, the antecedent of which is the fact of killing the dog. But schools in Britain have so neglected punctuation of late that the now famous book on punctuation by Lynne Truss, Eats(,)Shoots and Leaves, immediately ran into half a million copies, such was the public demand.

Students preparing a BA in English seem to study theories of psychology and linguistics rather than English grammar and idiom although as teachers they should be teaching their pupils to write clear English. The insistence on descriptive rather than normative grammar has been taken outside its proper field. A Lebanese studying in America was asked to teach remedial English to poor American blacks accepted in the university although they wrote, for example, “you is”. Having himself learnt English as a foreign language, he taught grammar better than the native professors. The authorities had lowered the standard of the university instead of raising the standard of the schools. At present, a Lebanese student doing remedial English at Houston University, Texas, has a Turkish instructor! A French-educated Lebanese lady now in Britain is giving courses of remedial English to native English university students simply because her French education gives her a good grasp of grammar. Local English students doing a BA in English asked her what a verb was! It is because French education is strong on grammar and logic that French Lebanese schools have a very high standard of English.

In the dim and distant past, when I was still at school, the lack of English grammar was partly compensated by Latin. Unlike English, Latin is an intellectual discipline. The use of Latin in medieval scholastic logic and theology made possible the intellectual progress and sense of order which the great physicist, mathematician and philosopher Professor A.N. Whitehead pointed out. One does not need to be a Latin scholar to appreciate the order and clarity of the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. As Boileau said in L‘Art poétique, “Ce que l’on conçoit bien s’énonce clairement, et les mots pour le dire viennent aisement.” Think clearly, speak clearly. Muddled writing indicates muddled thought.
Great works of science have always been great works of literature.

English is not easy. It is idiomatic and subtle. For example, “in case...” does not mean “in the case of...” It introduces, not a condition, but a precaution, as in, “I’m sure it won’t rain, but I’ll take an umbrella just in case it rains.” Prepositions and postpositions need endless study. “Make love to” and “make love with” have very different meanings!

Why has English actually declined? Four university academics talking on the BBC agreed heartily that, to restore the level of culture, television should be abolished. Television is the thief of time! In 1936 I saw the world’s first public television programme, in a vague bluish screen the size of a postcard in a TV set as big as a kitchen refrigerator. Fortunately for the culture of my generation, World War II suspended further development. So during school holidays every day I borrowed a couple of books from the public library, read seven or eight hundred pages, and changed the books next day. Certainly the decline of good reading among the young has affected their writing and general culture.

When I was young, I received letters from elderly people who had been a few years in a village elementary school about 1890 or 1900. These letters were enjoyable to read and to judge by the one or two still in my possession contained no noticeable mistakes of grammar, spelling or punctuation.

Computers teach bad English. Every time I write a letter on my PC, it says to me, “It looks like you’re writing a letter. Can I help you?” I would like to tell the illiterate contraption (Here I shouted and banged the table) that I was writing letters forty years before it was ever invented and that I would never use the preposition like as a conjunction. I would use either as if, or, better still, “It seems that...” So my computer can go and teach its grandmother to suck eggs.

Students think they have made a mistake when their sentence is underlined in green, but this is not always the case. The green line may be no more than a warning about something that the computer cannot decide. One often sees the Passive Voice underlined. An American preparing a doctoral thesis was told by her advisor that it was wrong to use the Passive. But can one imagine English without the Passive Voice? Read any serious text or grammar book. Take, “British cars were priced out of the market.” Try expressing that briefly without using the Passive. Who and which are often underlined when they are perfectly in their place.

In 1942, the US Army turned to behaviourist J.B. Watson for methods of training interpreters which later influenced teaching in general. Behaviourist principles are useful for learning simple sentences, particularly ones used on the job. But good composition is another matter. Watson wrote in the Encyclopœdia Britannica: “So far in his study of man no behaviourist has observed anything that can be called consciousness, sensation, perception or will.” This denies the very existence of thought and meaning. In fact, if there was no consciousness, perception or intention in what Watson himself said and wrote, one wonders why he was taking money for his books and lectures. He might as well have been quacking like a duck. Gestalt psychology was fine theory but when it was applied to education pupils could neither spell nor use a dictionary.

Pop radio is a bad influence. Once, a popular dance-band leader such as Henry Hall would speak good English even if he had a rather rough working-class voice. Now, radio takes the slang of pop “musicians” round the world.

The whole concept of education is changing, and this affects writing and speech. Education is confused with simple training. Education no longer implies elevation and refinement of the mind, a broad culture and good taste, qualities once fostered by the university. There is in the Anglo-Saxon mind a Philistine bias. Philosophy is not understood as an intellectual discipline. There is no real equivalent of the French word l’esprit. To say in French that somebody is an intellectual is to pay him a compliment. In English it is almost an insult, implying that the person lives with his head in the clouds. I remember on a farm in France the farmer’s wife listened every morning to a radio programme about correct French. I can’t imagine the audience ratings of Radio One soaring if they put on such a programme about English. In English company about the only subject one dare discuss is football.

Information is not the same as knowledge and understanding. So I conclude that no student can become a competent translator without massive reading in every language he or she knows so as to acquire a mastery of language and a broad culture with many facets so he or she can meet all challenges.


1- “The Middle Ages formed one long training of the intellect of Western Europe in the sense of order. It needs but a sentence to point out how the habit of definite exact thought was implanted in the European mind by the long dominance of scholastic logic and scholastic divinity... the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology.” Quoted page 232, The Good Gorilla, by Arnold Lunn, Hollis and Carter. Whitehead was not a Christian believer, although he believed in some sort of intelligence behind the world.

2- Quoted from Psychiatry Today, David Stafford-Clark, Penguin Books.
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