Monday, July 13, 2009

A numbers game

My vacation has been somewhat sullied by offers of work - editing jobs for the policy thinktank back in China, which I felt obliged to accept for the sake of maintaining good relations with them.

This morning's was a particularly painful experience - more explicitly 'political' than most of the articles I rewrite for them, and hence replete with ponderous set phrases from the Chinese Communist lexicon that are pretty much devoid of meaning. (You wouldn't think it possible, would you, to drone on for 10 pages about 'China's model of development' without once mentioning what that model actually is?)

Ordinarily, when I edit pieces like this, the finished version ends up being slightly longer than the original, since Chinglish is chiefly characterized by the frequent omission of small but important words - articles and auxiliary verbs in particular, but also quite often prepositions, especially in phrasal verbs. The Chinese also have a propensity to use pronouns without any clear antecedents, and to pile up strings of clauses or adjectival phrases which make a sentence hopelessly unwieldy, if not completely dislocating its grammar. So, I find I usually have to do a lot of breaking down of 40-word sentences into two or three constituent parts, and then adding in some linguistic grout of my own to smoothe over the cracks. And then they also quite often use jargon phrases or abbreviations which they assume are generally recognised, but in fact need an explanatory gloss. And so on, and so on. In short, they tend to leave out a lot of stuff that a native speaker would expect to be included in order to render the English grammatically complete and readily comprehensible.... so I have to add stuff to fill in all those omissions.

I did a lot of that in today's piece too. But much of it was such hopeless drivel - either so grammatically corrupt as to be irretrievable, or staggeringly turgid and repetitive - that the only sensible 'fix' was to delete whole chunks of it.

Starting word count: 4,680

Final word count: 3,400

That is a stunning reduction in wasteful verbiage.

(And if I'd been writing it in English myself from scratch, I could have brought it under 1,500 easily.)


stuart said...

Sounds like a busman's holiday.

I understand the 'pain' you speak of, having once accepted the task (as a favour, I might add) of proof reading a Chinese research paper intended for publication in an American journal.

The appropriate structure, language, and brevity of articles that get accepted for publication in English-language journals is tough to get across to a Chinese professor bent on selling his idea that a digging tool with a cutting edge that mimics the curvature of a mouse claw is more efficient than a conventional tool.

There was so much repetition of stock clauses like "...the greater efficiency of the natural claw with its advantageous variable curvature evolved over millions of years..." that I felt my resolve wilting with each paragraph.

No English language journal would come close to accepting such a draft. But you can't tell that to a Chinese professor who believes his tool design can change the way we dig forever and bring glory to the Motherland. Consequently, we went back and forth for a whole summer with me deleting and the professor re-inserting this kind of unwieldy language.

It was almost as if, in the Chinese psyche, the merit of an argument was related to the number of words that went into formulating it; and that the more often you repeated something the more it was likely to gain acceptance. Hmmm, come to think of it ...

Anyway, that was six weeks of my life I'll never get back.

Froog said...

I am preparing a lecture I hope to give to these poor lambs at the foreign policy studies institute on how to write proper academic English.

1) Don't repeat anything you've already said earlier in this sentence, or in the immediately preceding sentence.

2) Don't say anything which is STAGGERINGLY OBVIOUS.

3)Don't use the first (or second) person.

4) Don't use question marks or exclamation marks.

5) DO use quotation marks.

6) No sentence should be longer than 25 words.

Etc., etc., etc.