14 January 2011

Heavy Subjects

It is sometimes interesting to consider what is an error and what is a feature of a local variety of English.

I saw this sign at a scenic site near Yangmingshan, just north of Taipei. As far as I can see, the translation is pretty good. I would say that there are no errors there.

However, in some ways it does not really read quite right. Look at the subject of the sentence that forms the final paragraph. It consists of 32 words, starting with 'The thickness ...' and ending with '... and altitude'. A heavy subject like this is unusual in English, where we generally try to move long things to the end of the sentence. (We sometimes say that English is an 'end-weight' language.)

If I were to translate this sentence, I would probably move things around a bit, writing something like 'The beauty of this mountain range is created by the thickness ....'. But maybe I would be over-translating, and thereby removing some of the flavour of the original. Perhaps the translation shown on this sign is actually better, as it respects the style of the original more accurately. But then there is never a perfect translation; there are just a range of choices you can make.

I earlier mentioned the book on Chinese English by Xu Zhichang (here). He investigates features of Chinese English without talking about errors; and the structure of noun phrases is something he discusses. I think he is right to claim that noun phrases, particularly subjects, can be very long in Chinese English. And he is equally right to say that this does not constitute an error, just a feature of Chinese English.