Translating for the Language Mavens
For 20 years, my friend Jun and I have disagreed about language. A one-time copyeditor, she rigorously responds to “How are you?” with “I’m well” and not “Good.” I think she’s never met a split infinitive she liked. I, on the other hand, am a follower of Steven Pinker, who says of Jun (or William Safire, same difference):
“The legislators of “correct English,” in fact, are an informal network of copy editors, dictionary usage panelists, style manual writers, English teachers, essayists and pundits.Their authority, they claim, comes from their dedication to carrying out standards that maximize the language’s clarity, logic, consistency, precision, stability and expressive range. William Safire, who writes the weekly column “On Language” for the New York Times Magazine, calls himself a “language maven,” from the Yiddish word meaning expert, and this gives us a convenient label for the entire group.
To whom I say: Maven, shmaven! Kibitzers and nudniks is more like it. For here are the remarkable facts. Most of the prescriptive rules of the language mavens are bits of folklore that originated for screwball reasons several hundred years ago. For as long as they have existed, speakers have flouted them, spawning identical plaints about the imminent decline of the language century after century. The rules conform neither to logic nor to tradition, and if they were ever followed they would force writers into fuzzy, clumsy, incomprehensible prose, in which certain thoughts are not expressible at all.Indeed, most of the “ignorant errors” these rules are supposed to correct display an elegant logic and an acute sensitivity to the grammatical texture of the language, to which the mavens are oblivious.”
I like to boldly split infinitives and would love to flout even more such nonsensical rules. But, when translating, the specter of Jun gives me pause. We always write for imagined readers. I want my translations to be understood and sound good to native and non-native English readers. If I break a beloved rule of the language mavens, I know they will take out their red pens. For instance, I would love to use the “singular they” to get around the awkwardness of “he or she” and the archaicness of “he.” But just as my fingers are about to type “they,” I hold back, if only not to pain Jun.