Re: Action -> Result

Subject: Re: Action -> Result
From: Linda Sherman <linsherm -at- GTE -dot- NET>
Date: Thu, 24 Dec 1998 12:59:30 -0500

Emmy Aricioglu wrote:
> My group is interesting in knowing how other languages
> handle the construction Don wrote up; specifically, the *you*
> in "This process instructs you on ...."
> In our book, the section would begin with a heading like
> "How to Detonate a Bomb." We would not include the introduction
> "This process instructions you on how to detonate a bomb."

I'd hope not, as the heading already said that! :)

> We avoid using "you" whenever possible (reasons too lengthy
> to get into here).

I think that's generally a good idea anyway for most technical writing,
unless it's deliberately written in an informal style (e.g., For Dummies

> It is the American way to address one another casually as
> you. Is this a problem in translations?

"You" in these cases isn't meant as a form of address. It's really an
impersonal form. In the last half of this century it has replaced "one"
or "the reader" as the impersonal form, e.g.: "This process instructs
one on how to detonate a bomb" or "This process instructs the reader on
how to detonate a bomb." If you can replace "you" with "one" or "the
reader" without changing the meaning or intent, then it's the impersonal
"you". I'm not sure this has been a good development for the
language--even English-speakers sometimes assume that "you" means "you

As for translation problems, the only other language I speak is Welsh,
but it happens to provide an excellent example of why the translator has
to be sensitive to cultural biases.

One could write a whole manual in Welsh without ever using either the
second person impersonal "you" or the third-personal impersonal "one" or
"the reader"! This is because Welsh has an impersonal form of the verb
that takes no subject. Unfortunately, as English has no impersonal verb,
the Welsh impersonal inflection necessarily translates to either the
passive voice or the "impersonal you/one" in English even though it's
really neither in Welsh:

Ffrwydrir y bom gan bell-reolwr.
"The bomb is detonated with a remote controller."
"You detonate the bomb with a remote controller."
"One detonates the bomb with a remote controller."

Welsh has an impersonal imperative also, but since English doesn't, it
can't be translated without resorting to an awkward passive imperative
or to the second-person imperative:

Ffrwydrer y bom trwy wasgu'r botwm coch.
"The bomb shall be detonated by pushing the red button."
"Detonate the bomb by pushing the red button."

It would be considered bad form in *formal* written Welsh to use
anything but these impersonal forms, even though they appear to be
"passive" in the English translations. This is a good example of why a
good translator has to be sensitive to what are essentially cultural
rather than linguistic biases--in this case, the bias in modern English
*towards* using the second person to avoid the passive vs. the bias in
formal written Welsh *against* using the second person in exactly the
same situation.

(Thanks for giving me an excuse to give Welsh a bit of publicity!)

Linda K. Sherman <linsherm -at- gte -dot- net>
Computer programming, technical writing, web development
phone: 1-727-842-6756 fax: 1-727-842-6853

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