French vs. English

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When I travel around the world and come upon parallel translations of French and English, I am often struck by how much longer the French usually is than the English.  This impression was reinforced last week in the bathroom of the Marriott Courtyard in Columbia, Maryland.

One little box had this writing on the front:

FACIAL BAR

SAVON EN BARRE POUR LE VISAGE

Another little box had this written on the front:

BATH BAR

SAVON EN BARRE POUR LE BAIN

"Typical", I said to myself.

When I turned one of the boxes on its side, it said:

fresh and clean formula for everyday use

formule rafraichissante et pure, idéale pour une utilisation quotidienne

It was the same on both sides of both boxes

On either end of the bath bar was written:

citrus sage

sauge et agrumes

The facial bar had no writing on the two ends.

On the back of both boxes was written the following:

Eco-friendly products for a better today and tomorrow.

Packaging contains 35% post-consumer paper, 50% total recycled content. 100% recyclable.

Produits écologiques pour un endroit où mieux vivre aujourd'hui et demain.

Emballage contenant 35% de la papier recyclé post-consommation et 50% de contenu en matières recyclées.       Recyclable à 100%.

PLEASE RECYCLE         PRIÈRE DE RECYCLER

The French for "please recycle" could also be expressed in various other ways.  Here are a few:

Recyclez s'il vous plaît

Veuillez recycler

Merci de recycler

Could someone else translate the French on the boxes to make it as short as the English and still convey the same content?

Is the French on these packages correct and idiomatic?

Is the greater length of the French an artifact of its being the language into which the translation has been made?  I rather doubt this, since my impression is that the length of French compared to English tends to be greater no matter where I encounter them together.

So as not to rely on impressions, though, perhaps Mark could do a breakfast experiment on this.  Or maybe someone else can do a larger scale comparison of material having equivalent content in French and English. I'd be very curious to know the results.

Is French more succinct in other realms?

Incidentally, the back of the two packages also had the names of the products in Spanish and German:

Barra de jabón de baño – Badeseife

Barra de jabón de facial — Gesichtsseife

[Thanks to John Lagerwey and Haun Saussy]



66 Comments

  1. Dick Margulis said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 4:01 pm

    Many years ago I did the layout work on an engineering journal that, each month, included an insert with the abstracts of all the main articles translated into three language (French, Spanish, and German). These were laid out in three columns, one language per column. The length ratios were quite consistent from month to month. (The English abstracts were typeset differently and not directly comparable.) Frankly, at this remove, I don't recall the ranking of the three language by length, but the consistency speaks to your observation, I think.

  2. S Frankel said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 4:04 pm

    H L Mencken compared the Bible in various languages and found that English was the shortest. My impression is that modern Swedish (without obsolete verb endings, for example) tends to be more compact than English, but most other languages tend to sprawl a bit.

  3. Irina said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 4:09 pm

    It's also interesting that both French and Spanish call it "bar of soap" while English calls it only a "bar" and German only "soap". (I'm currently in Galicia, which causes all kinds of cognitive dissonance, perhaps that's why I'm more sensitive to nuances of language)

  4. Une Canadienne said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 4:39 pm

    As someone working in a bilingual environment, I can say that French texts are notoriously longer than the English versions.

    I remember though hearing that the Official Languages Act (of Canada) was drafted in French first and came out shorter in French than in English.

    I just checked this to see if it was an urban myth, but indeed the French is markedly shorter than the English (about 12,700 words in English versus 10,600 in French).

    (The more recent legislative drafting practice, as I understand it, is to do side-by-side versions.)

  5. Zeppelin said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 4:41 pm

    Seems to me like the French version tends to contain more information than the English one? Which does suggest it was translated from the English, what with the tendency for translations to disambiguate.

    Compare "Facial Bar" (what kind of "bar"? is it for "facials"? for the face? attached to the face?) with "soap in bar for the face" in the French version.

    Written French also just takes up more space compared to an English utterance that would take the same time to say, since it has so many silent letters.
    So spelling that better reflects the modern pronunciation would make many of those phrases significantly shorter, i.e.

    sauge et agrumes >
    sož e agrüm

    formule rafraichissante et pure, idéale pour une utilization quotidienne >
    formül rafräšisãt e pür, ideal pūr ün ütilizasyõ kotidyen

    emballage contenant […] >
    õbalaž kõtenõ

    etc. etc.

    (or something like that, I'm making these spellings up as I go along and my French phonology isn't great).
    Comparing the number of phonemes might be interesting.

  6. French and clean formula said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 5:15 pm

    Here we go.

    FACIAL BAR
    SAVON EN BARRE POUR LE VISAGE
    SAVON POUR LE VISAGE [It's obvious that it's a bar—also "savon en barre" does not sound all that French –> the actual packaging is not very idiomatic]
    POUR LE VISAGE [If you really want to make it short—it's obvious that it's soap, anyways. Also, it gives the whole thing a "luxury" feel (cologne is labeled "POUR HOMME"/"POUR L'HOMME")]
    SAVON VISAGE [If you really want to make it short 2]

    /

    BATH BAR
    SAVON EN BARRE POUR LE BAIN
    SAVON POUR LE BAIN [see above]
    POUR LE BAIN [see above]
    SAVON DE BAIN

    /

    fresh and clean formula for everyday use
    formule rafraichissante et pure, idéale pour une utilization quotidienne [oops, you got a spelling mistake here –> "utilisation", not "utilization"]
    Pur et rafraichissant, à utiliser quotidiennement [If you really want to make it short]
    Frais et pur, à utiliser quotidiennement [If you really want to make it short 2]

    /

    citrus sage
    sauge et agrumes
    Agrumes-sauge [If you really want to make it short]

    /

    Eco-friendly products for a better today and tomorrow.
    Packaging contains 35% post-consumer paper, 50% total recycled content. 100% recyclable.

    Produits écologiques pour un endroit où mieux vivre aujourd'hui et demain. [not idiomatic!]
    Emballage contenant 35% de la papier recyclé post-consommation et 50% de contenu en matières recyclées. Recyclable à 100%. [oops, here's an other one : "de papier" is the way to go. Also, I'm not sure what "recyclé post-consommation" means]

    Produits écologiques, pour aujourd'hui et demain.
    Emballage : 35% de papier recyclé, 50% de matières recyclées au total. 100% recyclable.

    /

    PLEASE RECYCLE
    PRIÈRE DE RECYCLER

    (The French for "please recycle" could also be expressed in various other ways.  Here are a few:
    Recyclez s'il vous plaît
    Veuillez recycler
    Merci de recycler)

    RECYCLEZ-MOI ! [If you really want to make it short : "Recycle me" –> this is fairly common]
    RECYCLEZ ! [If you really want to make it short 2]

  7. Eric P Smith said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 5:43 pm

    I've made this comment before but this is a better context for it. Some years ago when the official Laws of Chess and their Interpretations were in French, one of the Interpretations consisted of a question and answer, and the official answer was something like "La Fédération Internationale des Échecs est d'avis que les règles du jeu d'Échecs doivent être interprétées de telle sorte que c'est le cas." The official English translation was "Yes."

  8. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 5:44 pm

    Some of the French is definitely wrong: utilization (orthography) and de la papier (grammar).
    Also, French soap bars are likely to be labeled just savon rather than savon en barre, as here.

  9. Brian Bragg said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 5:56 pm

    For a convenient comparison of English and French, travel to Canada. The two languages are juxtaposed almost everywhere on official signs and on consumer products.
    In the USA, make the comparison of languages by purchasing an electronic device, or a power tool or other machine or mechanical gadget made in China. The operation manual will usually be printed in four or more languages, including English, Spanish, French and German — and often Japanese, Korean and Italian.
    The English instructions and descriptions are almost always shortest, in my experience.

  10. Peter Metcalfe said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 6:30 pm

    I can point to an example in which the reverse is true. In Florence at the entrance to the Baptistry, there is a multi-language sign telling people in effect to behave as this was a sacred place. The french was shorter than the english expression.

  11. Mark said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 6:30 pm

    My mother used to work for the Canadian government in the typing pool. They had to type the same texts in both languages in two columns on the same sheet. They always had to leave more space for the French version, about one third more space. Because there French was longer, and they were using manual typewriters, they'd always type out the French first, so that there was enough room for the English.

  12. AntC said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 7:01 pm

    @ Une Canadienne As someone working in a bilingual environment, I can say that French texts are notoriously longer than the English versions.

    Yes. A particular problem in designing computer screen layouts for multi-lingual applications. You typically allow +40% over the text length of English, for French and German, and other European languages. (And then you get complaints that there's wasted 'real estate' in the English version.)

  13. Jeff W said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 7:17 pm

    My completely lay theory about why the French version tends to be longer than the English is

    (1) The word forms tend to be longer in French: e.g., post-consumer vs. post-consummation; use vs. utilization.

    (2) English uses attributive nouns in a way that tends to be shorter than the French equivalents: e.g., bath bar vs. savon en barre pour le bain.

    (3) There might be a tendency in French to use prepositions where English would omit them: 35% post-consumer paper vs. 35% de la papier recyclé post-consommation, 100% recyclable vs. recyclable à 100%.

    (I'm not sure if the use of savon or recyclé in French where English leaves "soap" or "recycled" unstated is susceptible to a general principle.)

    (4) French tends to use the definite article where English tends to omit it: paper vs. la papier; bath vs. le bain

    (I'm not stating these as hard-and-fast rules—"Keep off the grass" apparently is Pelouse Interdite (= "Forbidden Lawn") in French, which sounds a lot more terse than the English—but perhaps just tendencies.)

    Maybe someone has some defensible theory that English being a little more analytic and French being a little more synthetic (in linguistic terms), the former tends to be shorter—it can just use the "bare" words more freely—but that person isn't me. I'm just guessing.

  14. Stephen Hart said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 7:21 pm

    Similarly, compare a bit of dialog in a Chinese or Japanese movie with the English translation:

    Chinese or Japanese: 30 seconds of dialog
    English subtitle: "Huh?"

  15. MMF said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 8:09 pm

    Following what Jeff W wrote, I wonder if one of the ways English saves words is through the use of nouns as premodifiers to replace prepositional phrases or relative clauses, as in French and Clean's translations: BATH BAR vs. SAVON POUR LE BAIN. Do other European languages share this tendency?

  16. J. F. said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 8:10 pm

    Stephen Hart's remark reminds me of 1968's "The Dove"
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8X2QmLWWxq4

  17. Chris said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 2:38 am

    On British roads you will sometimes see a sign saying SLOW DOWN. In Spain, it's MODERE SU VELOCIDAD – longer but so much more attractive.

  18. AlexB said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 3:23 am

    I agree with Zeppelin that spelling has a lot to do with it. French does have a lot of 'silent' letters. As an experiment, I once developed a French spelling based on the Turkish convention, and even with a moderate simplification, you easily win 10% of space. If you eliminate etymology and digraphs altogether, you can even obtain 20%.

    The result does look weird though.

  19. /ni:v/ said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 5:00 am

    This reminds me of when I watched CSI dubbed in German… it always struck me that the German voice-over artists had to talk extremely quickly to get information across that didn't take so long in English. I guess in spoken language it's a different thing from written language anyway, but the concept of information density in language must have huge effects on people in the dubbing and subtitling industries.

  20. Sean Manning said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 5:05 am

    I would think that someone who likes to code could run a quick comparison on say the corpus of speeches translated for the UN. Trying texts composed in English and texts composed in French would avoid the risk that translators sometimes shorten things which they do not understand.

  21. Judith Strauser said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 5:32 am

    French is notoriously longer than English, yes, though I shall not venture into possible reasons (Jeff W makes a good case), but as others mentioned above, it's also pretty clear in this case that the English was translated into French, which does lead to significant expansion, that translation professionals here call "blooming".

    As a French translator (of English), I've been taught the blooming of a text as you translate it represents generally about a 6-10% volume expansion when going from English to French for a long text like a novel. It's (apparently) generally considered that on a long text, a blooming factor of over 15% hints at a bad (literarily speaking) translation job. There are other blooming ratios for other language pairs, all serving as reference points, but I forgot them.

    Now of course, that can't blithely apply to various, shorter, non-literary texts; the variance is huge. But it's good to remember that the blooming effect is real, I think, regardless of the language translated.

  22. Thor said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 6:32 am

    The UN-associated organizations in Rome used differing column widths for English, French and Spanish texts — I seem to recall 6, 7 & 8 cm, respectively — for parallel texts so they ended up as a similar length on the page.

  23. Brian Spooner said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 7:23 am

    Comparison with non-European and non-IndoEuropean languages might make this observation even more interesting. Is English shorter because it requires less inflection? Is it more flexible because it's speech community is larger? or a diminishing concern about correctness? Although I am unable at the moment to offer any similar direct comparisons, I think Indian English (historically a language of the elite) may not be as short as Western English, but Persian (historically a large speech community with little inflection, in which correctness is now of diminishing value) may be as brief .

  24. Alan Gunn said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 7:24 am

    Some of the recent articles about Omar Sharif, who made movies in six languages, including English and French, said English was his favorite language because it was concise. One of the pieces said he learned English as a child because his mother thought he was too fat, so she sent him to an English school, reasoning that he wouldn't want to eat much of the food they'd give him.

    As for English and German, Spiegel Online recently had an interview with a German soccer player who found himself playing for a team in Liverpool, under some sort of exchange program. He struggled at first, especially "up north, where the Scottish people live," but said he now prefers English to German, even when speaking with other Germans, because "after a few words you can tell what the sentence is about." I suppose verb placement could account for that, but German sentences are notoriously long.

    All these quotes are approximate because the interview was in German and I'm doing this from memory because I've never figured out how to search for old Spiegel pieces.

  25. Ray said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 7:28 am

    years ago, when typing college papers in french, I noticed that my left hand had to do a lot more work than it did in english. (I blame all those subordinate conjunction words with the Q, like que, lorsque, puisque, jusqu'a, quand, quoique etc., along with all the DE prepositions de, du, de la, des — which might also explain how french texts end up longer in construction than english?)

  26. Lugubert said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 7:41 am

    In some cases, I suppose differences might be culture dependent. In Sweden, we're every now and then recommended to write close to spoken Swedish and avoid legalese. Those reminders address lawyers and doctors, too, and are codified and enforced for government work.

    When I was on a team translating for a US multinational, the first rule was that the Swedish must be at least 30% shorter than the original.

    I made up the example "Now please press the A key" -> "Tryck på A". (I suppose German could have been "A drücken".)

    We also encountered an example like one quoted above, when an affirmative answer to a training question was several lines in USE and unanimously was voted to become "ja" in Swedish.

  27. /ni:v/ said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 7:41 am

    With regard to translations, a Polish friend of mine has noted that the Polish versions of the Harry Potter books are significantly longer than the English versions. Her interpretation was that sometimes, things that can be described in one word in English would need a whole phrase in Polish. So this fits in with above comments about English being concise!

  28. empty said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 7:42 am

    I remember a sign in an Italian train car. In three languages it stated that it is dangerous to lean out the window; in German it said "Nicht hinauslehnen".

  29. MattF said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 7:44 am

    @Judith Strauser:

    The notion of 'blooming' is really interesting. What happens for French-> English translation?

  30. tpr said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 8:07 am

    I wonder if English texts can also be understood faster than French or other languages that need more room to say the same thing. It isn't obviously the case, particularly for complex texts.

    In speech, there is an advantage to having longer words though. An English speaker in a noisy environment is better off using the word 'elevator' than 'lift' because you can miss more phonemes in the former and still have enough information to correctly guess which word was used. Perhaps the more verbose languages developed in the sort of bustling social environments that required a bit more redundancy on average.

  31. Mark Liberman said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 8:39 am

    In addition to the differences that Jeff W listed, there's also the fact that plural indefinites in English are bare plurals, whereas in French they require des. A couple of examples from an abstract written originally in French and translated into English:

    Les partenariats public-privé désignent des contrats administratifs globaux de long terme par lesquels …

    Public-private partnerships are long-term, global, administrative contracts by which …

    … les paramètres économiques et financiers qui peuvent conduire des collectivités publiques à opter pour cette voie …

    … the economic and financial parameters that can lead public authorities to choose this solution …

    Overall, the French version of the abstract has 382 words and 2667 characters, whereas the English version has 347 words and 2370 characters. These differences [(382-347)/347 = 10.1% ; (2667-2370)/2370 = 12.5%] are fairly typical of genuine translations, I think. Though of course a larger sample would be good, and the direction of translation certainly does matter.]

  32. Robert T McQuaid said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 9:19 am

    French text is usually longer than English, at least in the written form. But in spoken form, French is often shorter than English. The reduced information in speech drives Frenchmen to use more hand gestures to supplement their meaning. The longer written version includes a lot of letters never pronounced.

  33. michael farris said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 10:23 am

    My impression (from years of informally comparing multi-lingual texts).

    The mainland Germanic Scandinavian languages are the most concise with English not too far behind and German/French the most verbose. How much of this purely structural how much is cultural isn't clear.

  34. DWalker said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 10:42 am

    On cans of air freshener, bottles of over-the-counter pain relievers, and the like, sold in the southwestern United States, I often see simultaneous English and Spanish text. I notice that the Spanish is always quite a bit longer. I would say one-third to one-half longer (or 1.33 to 1.5 times as long) as the English version, in my unscientific observations.

    I don't see French nearly as often.

  35. PVanderwaart said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 11:09 am

    Aside from the qualities of the languages, there is a big cultural component. At least in the US, users of English are notorious for condensing messages to a minimum, often with a loss of clarity. Consider, for example, how "India Pale Ale" has become "IPA", "cabernet sauvignon" has become "cab," "Greek Exit from euro" has become "Grexit."

  36. Victor Mair said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 11:21 am

    From an American scholar who has been living and teaching in Paris for five decades:

    1) Yes, I believe that French tends to be longer than English. English is a very "efficient" language, with many words like "elbow grease" that convey a whole sentence in a compressed and colorful term. English also easily incorporates words from other languages, starting of course with French. Indeed, as 2/3 of English vocabulary derives from French, I often say that English is in fact "Franglais".

    2) French, being a far "purer" language, has a much smaller vocabulary, explaining why things often require a paraphrase when going from English. On the other hand, I find French far more efficient when dealing with matters "metaphysical" (or logical; matters of thought).

    In the examples, they are clearly "translated" from the English, with mistakes:

    1) I assume that "bar" refers to a "bar of soap", meaning there is no good reason to say "savon en barre": just plain "savon" would do just fine

    2) while "savon pour le visage" is just fine "savon de bain" would have been sufficient. (note that the German translator does what I suggest the French translator [if there was a human one] should have done).

    3) formule rafraichissante et pure, idéale pour une utilization quotidienne: "idéale" has been added, and "pure" is not exactly "clean".

    4) Produits écologiques pour un endroit où mieux vivre aujourd'hui et demain.

    Produits écologiques pour mieux vivre aujourd'hui et demain would suffice.

    5) What on earth is "post-consumer" paper? As for contenu en matières recycles, there is no need for "contenu en". All of this suggests Google translationese at work….

  37. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 11:36 am

    If the source text includes concepts that are specific to a certain culture and often designated by a single word, then a translation will often require circumlocutions to convey those concepts, leading to greater length.

    For that matter, if I were to find the words "facial bar" on anything other than a soap package, I would have no idea of what was meant, given the many meanings of "bar" in English.

  38. Freddy Hill said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 12:38 pm

    Written English Seem more informal than written Spanish or French, and by that I mean closer to the spoken language. I have often wondered if the difference in length carries into the spoken informal language. My sense is that the difference would be much smaller.

  39. Calvin said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 12:54 pm

    One of the strengths of English is in its ability to absorb foreign words verbatim into its vocabulary. For example, de facto (Latin), raison d'être (French), chutzpah (Yidish), schadenfreude (German), moped (Swedish), kowtow (Chinese), tycoon (Japanese).

    I wonder if other languages are as flexible. For example, French has its "famous" Académie française holding sway. What is the French translation for the English loanwords above?

  40. Lugubert said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 1:15 pm

    MattF wrote
    "The notion of 'blooming' is really interesting. What happens for French-> English translation?"

    Would that be wilting?

  41. Guy_H said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 1:52 pm

    The notion that English absorbs foreign words better than other languages simply isn't true. In recent decades, European and Asian languages have absorbed hundreds of English words, whilst English has absorbed relatively few words in return. Browse the magazine stands in Europe or Asia, and you'll notice magazine covers are littered (polluted?) with "trendy" English loanwords all readily understandable to their target audience.

  42. Ellen K. said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 2:20 pm

    In addition to absorbing words verbatim, English also borrows and shortens, such as queso for what in Spanish is called salsa con queso.

  43. AlexB said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 2:28 pm

    @Freddy Hill

    For French, that is certainly a factor. Spoken French will typically use a lot of slang terms and/or abbreviations. Some have caught on, such as métro for métropolitain, but most would be inapproriate to use in a formal context.

  44. Rodger C said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 3:07 pm

    "Now with con queso cheese!"

  45. bfwebster said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 3:09 pm

    A few more thoughts:

    — I wonder (as a non-French speaker) how much impact the Académie française has had on blocking vocabulary and idiomatic adoptions/changes that would make French more concise. Perhaps someone could comment?

    — Japanese/Chinese -> English tends to be an expansion; hence the typical (and often parodied) nature of Japanese/Chinese movies dubbed into English requiring that the English be spoken in very fast bursts. I have a granddaughter who loves to watch Miyazaki films when she comes over to our house ("Princess Mononoke", "Spirited Away", etc.), and I note this every time.

    — Similarly, I have been doing a spreadsheet comparison of several different translations of Sun Tzu's Art of War (including, of course, Victor Mair's); at times, you end up with very lengthy English translations for a small number of Chinese characters. (You also end up with quite different and sometimes directly contradictory translations, but that's another issue.)

    — Finally, the LDS (Mormon) Church ran into the compact-English issue in translating its newer temple films into certain African dialects — so much so, that these new films have what to English speakers are unusually long pauses between some lines of dialog (cf. http://www.sltrib.com/56693292).

  46. Mr Punch said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 3:31 pm

    "Post-consumer" paper is made of material (well, paper) recycled after being used by consumers, which is what most of us think of as recycling. A large proportion of recycling actually makes use of material wasted in the course of industrial processes, e.g., scraps or spoilage.

  47. harold said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 4:12 pm

    French always strikes me a clearer and more elegant than English — I don't know about short or long.

    A random example a paragraph from Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the sea in French and English from Project Gutenberg:

    Á l'époque où ces événements se produisirent, je revenais d'une exploration scientifique entreprise dans les mauvaises terres du Nebraska, aux États-Unis. En ma qualité de professeur-suppléant au Muséum d'histoire naturelle de Paris, le gouvernement français m'avait joint à cette expédition. Après six mois passés dans le Nebraska, chargé de précieuses collections, j'arrivai à New York vers la fin de mars. Mon départ pour la France était fixé aux premiers jours de mai. Je m'occupais donc, en attendant, de classer mes richesses minéralogiques, botaniques et zoologiques, quand arriva l'incident du Scotia.

    During the period in which these developments were occurring, I had returned from a scientific undertaking organized to explore the Nebraska badlands in the United States. In my capacity as Assistant Professor at the Paris Museum of Natural History, I had been attached to this expedition by the French government. After spending six months in Nebraska, I arrived in New York laden with valuable collections near the end of March. My departure for France was set for early May. In the meantime, then, I was busy classifying my mineralogical, botanical, and zoological treasures when that incident took place with the Scotia.

  48. Calvin said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 4:53 pm

    @bfwebster,

    Similarly, I have been doing a spreadsheet comparison of several different translations of Sun Tzu's Art of War (including, of course, Victor Mair's); at times, you end up with very lengthy English translations for a small number of Chinese characters. (You also end up with quite different and sometimes directly contradictory translations, but that's another issue.)

    Just a note, The Art of War was written in classical Chinese (文言文) around 5th century BC. Majority of Chinese readers today cannot fully comprehend it (myself included). When translated into Modern Standard Chinese (白話文), the length of the text is roughly tripled. Here is one version in Modern Standard Chinese. It may help to clarify some contradictions you found among different versions of non-Chinese translations.

  49. Oliver Neukum said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 5:20 pm

    The original author always has the option to tailor his dropping of information with a goal to become more concise to the language he writes in. The translator, if he wants to destroy as little information as possible, cannot do that.

  50. julie wei said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 7:04 pm

    @Stephen Hart said,

    Similarly, compare a bit of dialog in a Chinese or Japanese movie with the English translation:

    Chinese or Japanese: 30 seconds of dialog
    English subtitle: "Huh?"

    Juiie Wei says:
    Yes, that's true in my experience with famous Chinese movies. The English sub-titles to Chinese films are mostly much shorter than what is being said in Chinese. That's because the subtitles drop a lot of the original content. I find the Chinese dialogue much richer. often more witty, more humorous, more elegant, more literary, more expressive. It seems to me that the translator takes the easiest route by giving us the barest minimum of what is being said in Chinese.

  51. julie wei said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 8:01 pm

    Yes, English sentences are often shorter than their translations into German. From a spy novel;

    English: "I was cleared of these charges."
    German: "Diese Anschuldigungen haben sich als haltlos erwiesen."

    English: "A mole is just the kind of thing Ascot would use to hang us. So I sent one of ours to talk to him, and we shipped him here."
    German: "Ein Maulwurf kaeme Ascot gerade recht, um uns abzuschiessen. Also hab ich einen von unseren Leuten losgeschickt , um mit ihm zu sprechen, und wir haben ihn hierhergebracht."

    However, German is sometimes more concise:

    English: "Pleased to meet you, Sir."
    German: "Sehr erfreut, Sir."

    English: "it doesn't matter."
    German: "Egal."

  52. Colin said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 10:35 pm

    @julie wei: Those last two quotes highlight some differences in vocabulary in the respective languages. Present-day German speakers rarely use a formal spoken address similar to 'Sir/Madam'; I don't think 'Sehr erfreut, Sir' is a good translation, although maybe 'Sehr erfreut!' on its own could work, depending on the context. Meanwhile, English doesn't have a generally accepted word for expressing indifference: the closest I can think of is 'meh', but as a word, it hasn't yet reached general acceptance even in informal contexts.

  53. Ethan said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 11:09 pm

    @Colin: Whatever

  54. French to English translator said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 11:17 pm

    As a French to English translator, I can confirm that texts do become shorter when translated from French into English. I don't have general quantitative data, but, just as an example, the text I was working on today started out 16 pages long and ended up 13 pages long.

    If the English translation comes out the same length as the French source text, it's often a sign that the translation is insufficiently idiomatic, and you should review it to look for opportunities to make it sound more like something that was originally written in English.

  55. Jeff W said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 11:51 pm

    @ Victor Mair (quoting an American scholar)

    French, being a far "purer" language, has a much smaller vocabulary, explaining why things often require a paraphrase when going from English.

    I'm not buying the "purer" reason. Mandarin is probably "purer" than either French or English and I would bet that if you found some commensurate way to measure the length of passages in it (not characters/letters, obviously)* with the equivalent in English, the Mandarin texts would be shorter than or at least not much longer than the English ones.

    @ Mark Liberman

    And with regard to French there's also (1) adjectives agree with nouns according to number and gender, adding assorted s's and e's and (2) probably verb inflections on average add up in French (although English has things like should have and might have had had so maybe that's a wash).

    To me the two main factors seem to be (1) the French equivalents to the English on average seem longer or at least as long; that seems like it's a factor of (a) French orthography (classique vs. classic, pâtisserie vs. pastry spring to mind), on the one hand, and maybe (b) the Latinate tilt of French (alimentation vs. food, although I'm not sure those two are equivalent), on the other, and (2) again, there is something about how English handles attributive nouns versus how French handles the equivalent. I just put "finger food" into Google Translate and the French translation is nourriture à manger avec les doigts—OK, I would bet that's wrong but boîte aux lettres for "mailbox," bouche d'incendie for "fire hydrant" and sac à main à bandoulière for "shoulder handbag" seem about right.

    The other factors we've mentioned seem like they just add to those two.

    This expansion issue is obviously known in, say, localization (like here) or translation (mentioned here) and there's no linguistic research or even theory about it?

    *It's actually not clear what we're talking about with regard to French and English—it seems like a combination of the letter and word count (French seems to be longer on both) but maybe it's one or the other.

  56. Bathrobe said,

    August 4, 2015 @ 1:30 am

    I find FACIAL BAR and BATH BAR both lack the ring of familiarity — they sound more like some kind of jargon that someone has cooked up than natural English. Of course, they could be North Americanisms, but would North Americans really say "Toss me the bath bar, sweetie" in a normal situation? They're comprehensible in context (especially written on a packet) but for me FACIAL SOAP and BATH SOAP sound more natural.

    (To be honest, I thought that BAR was something similar to the hotel MINI-BAR. Using BAR really is confusing in this context.)

  57. Bathrobe said,

    August 4, 2015 @ 1:33 am

    Look up FACIAL BAR on Google and most of the top hits are related to establishments where you can have a facial.

  58. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 4, 2015 @ 4:53 am

    In Wales, where official signage is bilingual, the Welsh is often a lot longer than the English.

    This is certainly a real difference between the languages in part, though it is to some extent exaggerated by the tendency for the Welsh versions to be clunky translations of the English rather than truly independent – often strikely unidiomatic and sometimes quite simply wrong translations, at that.

    I think some of the prolixity in the French versions above is to be accounted for similarly.

    There is also the question of French spelling. Actual spoken French typically has a pretty high morpheme-per-second rate. And not many languages can match 'au' – one phoneme, two whole morphemes …

    [(myl) Well, there's the "-a" of "Im'a", where one phoneme matches three whole morphemes (go+ing+to)…]

  59. chips mackinolty said,

    August 4, 2015 @ 9:14 am

    Off direct subject, but another romance language: Italian.

    i have just had translated a catalogue essay.

    Italian: 969 words
    English: 937 words

    Hardly worth writing home about … I'll see what happens with the Sicilian translation (which will be from the Italian)

  60. PeterL said,

    August 4, 2015 @ 4:22 pm

    As I recall, Canadian Hansard (bilingual records of debates in the House of Commons, with both English=>French and French=>English) gives about 30% more space to French (decades-old recollections of what someone who worked at the Queen's Printer told me). I attribute this to the "silent" endings in a lot of written French, plus constructs like French "X de Y" vs English "Y's X" or "Y X".

    Here are some stats, which seem to indicate that French is about 7% more verbose in terms of number of words: http://www.isi.edu/natural-language/download/hansard/

  61. Kimberly Oger said,

    August 4, 2015 @ 4:24 pm

    Having lived (and washed, and shopped) in France for over 30 years, I would say that I don't believe I've ever seen "savon de bain" written on the package of a bar of soap. You'd be far more likely to have something referring to the origin ("savon de Marseille", "savon de Provence"), special ingredients ("savon au lait d'ânesse"), or other particularities ("savon exfolliant", "savon antibactérien", "savon liquide", "savon noir" which is traditionally used for household cleaning) of the soap.

    Only if it has a specific usage, such as "savon pour le visage" or "savon pour les cheveux" (which is not the same as "shampooing") would one find this particular construction. Hands or bath or general body cleaning wouldn't qualify for that.

  62. Lisa R-R said,

    August 4, 2015 @ 9:25 pm

    I was given a 2015 calendar from the national Inuit organization in Canada which provided a couple of examples.

    1) Nunatsiavut dialect of Inuktitut – ikkogiattovik (sorry I don't know how to insert syllabics here)
    English – time and place where caribou swim across lakes in their migration path
    French – la période et l'endroit où le caribou traverse des lacs à la nage dans sa voie migratoire
    Due to the round shape of the calendar, the English used two lines but the French five …

    2) Nunatsiavut dialect of Inuktitut – koplut
    English – when ground cracks from frost
    French – lorsque la terre fait des craquements en raison du gel

  63. AlexB said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 3:08 am

    @Lisa R-R

    That is a nice example of translation blooming. The French translator has stuck closely to the English original, which has resulted in long-winded and clunky versions.

    For the last one, I'd say
    Quand le gel fait craquer la terre.

  64. bevrowe said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 1:26 pm

    One group of words that French often handles better is Latin derivatives. English sometimes retains the Latin nominative ending where French drops it. This not only leads, sometimes, to shorter words but ducks the silly tangle that English gets into when forming plurals for these words. Examples: circus/cirque, formula/formule, abacus/abaque, genius/genie.

    But on the wider issue, when translating French sonnets composed of twelve-syllable alexandrines, I mostly had no problem compressing the meaning into ten-syllable pentameters.

  65. Boris_tweets said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 1:41 am

    @VictorMair

    "Elbow grease" does exist in French! "Huile de coude" is a bit longer, but a litteral translation of that phrase. I have no idea which one came first, though.

  66. Odile Tronc said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 1:35 pm

    'Barre de savon' n'est pas employé en France, ni barre de bain.
    L'académie française ne dicte pas de règles; elle propose de nouveaux mots (pour traduire des mots étrangers qui passent dans l'usage), mais n'introduit dans son dictionnaire que les usages bien installés.
    http://www.academie-francaise.fr/la-langue-francaise/questions-de-langue

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