Writing English that will be translated to Chinese
March 4, 2021 10:23 PM   Subscribe

Are there ways of writing English so that it translates well to a different language, in particular Chinese?

I am in higher education and many of my students are Chinese. To facilitate their learning, I would like to provide lecture notes that they can drop into a translation service and get intelligible output.

A wild guess is that long sentences are probably bad, and specialized words/jargon is not necessarily bad—words with fewer alternate meanings probably result in less confusion. Am I on the right path?

Beyond this, I can't think of more guidelines that would help. What are your thoughts?
posted by butwheresthesushi to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Unfortunately, it depends on the translator. I am American-Chinese, fully fluent in both, and I've been Americanized enough that I think in English, but I can code-switch back to Chinese readily enough.

The only way to produce proper notes in Chinese, is to write them in Chinese. IMHO, of course.
posted by kschang at 10:35 PM on March 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

Let me clarify my thoughts on this. Without knowing what subject you may be teaching (and it's not really relevant), I don't believe you should be "accommodating" your students from China by making your lecture notes "more translatable". They are here. They are taking YOUR class. I am sure they have sufficient English proficiency levels in order to even leave the country and pass TOEFL and whatever qualified them to be here. If they lack that proficiency, covering for them by giving them "more digestible" notes is not really going to help them in the long run. If they need remedial English, let them seek remedial English. If they don't understand something, they can always talk to your TA or come during your office hours, just like any other student.

That's my opinion.
posted by kschang at 10:54 PM on March 4, 2021 [7 favorites]

Before starting on this endevor I would ask your students what they want/need to succeed. It may be more reasonable for you to pad in extra time for all students for writing assignments, or clear path of when certian readings or work is done. Take home tests without time limits may help if you are looking for essays so if there is language difficulties and they have a little extra time to submit their best work.

In general, it's probably more helpful to list a glossiery of terms and definitions in English, so they can look up their language equivalent. This also helps English speakers too, if they are struggling with concepts or meanings. Basically things that can help all students and aren't directed specifically at second language learners.

Some may be working on their English diligently and would prefer naturally written English than something that can go into a translator. Some may be insulted that you think that they need help with the material. It's really hard to predict.

So asking questions and providing space for them to tell you without judgement or assumptions is the best way to go here.
posted by AlexiaSky at 11:01 PM on March 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Another sideways-thinking suggestion: perhaps take an extra step in ensuring that your students, native Chinese-speaking and otherwise, are aware of resources available to them, both those that your school provides, and others that they might find useful. It may be that your school offers accommodations to non-native-English speakers, or it's something that you can choose to offer. It's probable that there are math and writing labs students can reach out to for extra help.

Also - there's no harm in seeking input from students, especially at the end of terms. Add among your questions things like if there are external resources that they found helpful to them that they would recommend to future students... it's always possible that students discover a resource that an instructor may not have happened upon yet.
posted by stormyteal at 1:29 AM on March 5, 2021

Best answer: I’ve been working for many years writing legislative text in English that had to be translated into Irish (in one place) or Arabic in another. Since it was legislative text, both clarity and accuracy of the translation were paramount. I’ve been asking a form of your question in both places for all that time and have never received much of an answer. But there are a couple of books that might help: The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market by John R Kohl, and The Microsoft Manual of Style by guess who. Both are available from Amazon.
posted by Logophiliac at 3:48 AM on March 5, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I think there's a parallel with accessibility here: in the same way that making software fully keyboard accessible helps not only those that can't use a mouse comfortably, but also power users who can memorise common sequences, and instruction-givers who can say "press XYZ" instead of "look for the icon that's kind of like an upside-down Christmas tree, bottom left, and click on it".

If you optimise and structure your language, and maybe eschew metaphors and sayings that reference things that aren't cross-cultural, you will be helping your Chinese students, their translators if any, students from other countries, students from your own country that don't have the same set of language that you do, and maybe even yourself if this turns into a textbook at some point. I wouldn't target a particular group though.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 5:09 AM on March 5, 2021 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: I am sure they have sufficient English proficiency levels in order to even leave the country and pass TOEFL and whatever qualified them to be here.

Unfortunately, they are not here (most are Zooming in), and their level of proficiency is not great. I don't mind if they learn the concepts in a language other than English. Ensuring they learn in English is not my goal.

... pad in extra time for all students for writing assignments

Unfortunately, my institution does not allow this.

Some may be working on their English diligently and would prefer naturally written English

This may be true, I had not thought about this.

It may be that your school offers accommodations to non-native-English speakers

Unfortunately, no.

Also - there's no harm in seeking input from students, especially at the end of terms.

Very true. Pursuing an informal discussion would be useful.

maybe eschew metaphors and sayings that reference things that aren't cross-cultural

This is very helpful.
posted by butwheresthesushi at 5:26 AM on March 5, 2021

+1 for John Kohl's Global English guide; I've given that to a handful of people over the years. My writing style is far too conversational, so in these situations I need to constantly remind myself: you're not paying "up front", you're paying "initially" or "to begin a contractual relationship" etc. If it's boring but it's clear, you nailed it. I'm sure the Microsoft guide is good too.

Long story short, be clear and explicit above all, even if that means your text is boring or repetitive. This isn't the time for linguistic flourishes, colorful expressions, or even ambiguous antecedents.
posted by adekllny at 7:23 AM on March 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I haven't read the Global English book, but my comment here will support the book's point: every language has a vernacular style that can be hard even for intermediate speakers, and English is no different. What i find interesting is despite the worldwide use of English, i have observed (and citation:Native English speakers are the world’s worst communicators (BBC)) that english monolinguals are still bad at understanding this.

So with that in mind:

1. No sarcasm or ironic phrases especially if the intent is to actually break the ice or to show informality.

2. Be as literal as possible - don't use metaphorical language especially in speech which can be a tall order because English is rife with them. In written form you can try, since they'll have time to parse it, once you get used to your students.

3. Considering you're thinking of two languages with fairly different conventions on subject-verb order, break the habit of nested clauses if you're this sort of person.

4. To be honest, i would say the practice here for you is parsing English as being communicated by ppl who's trained in another set of grammar. For chinese in particular, there might be confusion in plurals and tenses and gendered pronouns. This i would say would be a great skill to develop in general.

5. I wouldn't be averse to using non-verbal cues, basic sign language and emojis where appropriate to clarify.
posted by cendawanita at 8:17 AM on March 5, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Okay, so maybe a grammar checker that analyzes your writing for "grade level" / "maturity" / "style" like Grammarly can be useful? That should at least give you a hint on whether you're too conversational (too many idioms) or using too fancy words.
posted by kschang at 8:23 AM on March 5, 2021

Love to read your BBC link, cendawanita, but it's malformed.
posted by Rash at 8:27 AM on March 5, 2021

Best answer: Very sorry Rash! The perils of phone typing: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20161028-native-english-speakers-are-the-worlds-worst-communicators
posted by cendawanita at 8:42 AM on March 5, 2021

Best answer: A particularly weird and difficult aspect of idiomatic English is the use of prepositions, especially with verbs like set, to, put, and go:

Get at, go all in, put up with, come up with, get into, look up, take on, take up, go for, etc.

These little words have multi-page entries in the OED* and are difficult to parse for a learner. Yet, they are one of the markers of a fluent speaker.

Perhaps use them sparingly or supply a footnote or glossary for the ones who want to learn them.

*New online tools like Reverso Context are fantastic for this.
posted by dum spiro spero at 2:38 PM on March 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I wonder if it would be worthwhile for you to learn a bit about Special English, a simplified version of English used by Voice of America. I honestly don’t know much about it other than that it uses a limited number of words and simplified grammar, but you may pick up some ideas by checking out how VOA writes stories.
posted by imalaowai at 8:15 PM on March 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

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