Blooming, embellishment, and bombs

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In the comments to a recent post about the length differential between French and English, the concept of "blooming" was introduced.

The ensuing discussion prompted one Language Log reader to spell out her thoughts at greater length.  I should provide a bit of background about this anonymous contributor, namely, she lived through the bombing of Berlin and other cities (which she has described to me in graphic detail in various messages), worked in Germany for awhile after WW II, and then immigrated to the United States.

English vs. French (guest post)

English is utilitarian, French is a cultured, elegant, and polite language which necessarily
would affect length, wordiness.

Two odd examples:

Although under Hitler it was considered subversive/suspect to speak foreign languages, during the blitz it was much quicker to yell "down" when a bomb was imminent over saying "legen sie sich bitte auf den Boden", more polite "wuerden sie sich bitte auf den Fussboden legen".*

The other example caused me getting dressed down severely at my office [VHM: in Silicon Valley], when asked to translate a French letter which contained three equally long paragraphs.  But when I turned it back in I showed two paragraphs and "Sincerely".  They wouldn't believe me that the third
paragraph was simply a VERY fancy French way to sign off.  It went on and on saying something like "ever in your service, an honor to have been of assistance, always ready to render help, ever reliably your servant  etc. etc. etc."

Then there is the matter of descriptiveness.  While attending a course of Russian Literature at UCLA, we were told that those who spoke German should read the texts in translations in that language, as next to Russian it was the most descriptive language.

Somewhere your Language Log post mentioned "blooming", and I think that could easily happen when attempting to translate from a descriptive language into English. My first job at the end of the war with the US Gov. was with the US Military Courts in Munich where I was to translate for the courts. But when faced with a country bloke who was about to be sentenced severely, I balked.  The man only spoke in heavy dialectic figures of speech.  As a Prussian I was totally unfamiliar with the nuances of his local colloquial expressions which then led, literally, to a case of blooming, while at the same time being petrified of possibly aggravating the chap's sentence for lack of not getting the right innuendo correctly.

And lastly there is visualization.  I don't know what other people "see" when they are reading, but to me there arises an entire landscape of where/how my subject takes place. Thus I read the wonderful story of Elsa the lion by Joy Adamson.  (Oddly while reading I became quite aware that this author's native language must be German, although I had no such information at the time.) Sometime later my Mother sent me the books in German.  Just for the heck of it I began reading and became fascinated with the fact that I was reading "a totally different story".  While the English version was truly taking place in the African veld, the German version was so formal that I was expecting to come across crystal chandeliers, a rather strange sensation.  In the African landscape the sparse English was much more fitting than this "opulent" German.


*I thought I should explain the sounds of bombs.  In the din of an attack, which is VERY loud obviously, one nevertheless can single out a bomb coming directly at one  But what some people, because of lowered hearing acuity, don't notice is that when the explosion is almost imminent, the whistling of that particular bomb stops abruptly.  THAT is THE most critical thing to watch for, because there's no moment left to tell you in so many words to  please lie down on the floor.

VHM:  Although, strictly speaking, this note about the sounds that bombs make, is not directly related to linguistics, the acoustic principles involved may be of interest to phonologists.


  1. Nathan said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 11:49 am

    I worked as an English-French translator in Montreal for several years starting in 2001, so I can agree with a lot of the last few posts – just with more prosaic insight into fitting bilingual fashion blurbs on magazine pages, and less into WWII bombs.

    Yep, French is longer, but I always assumed we were just catching English and French at different stages in the evolution of their respective fashions: Not that English "just is" utilitarian, and French "just is" cultured, elegant, and polite, but that that's what each language happens to find stylish right now. Proper linguists have done proper research on this, but wordiness goes in and out of fashion within a language over time: Gibbon reads much more modern and breezy than the long-winded Victorians who came after; U.S. presidents used to talk more elaborately in their speeches than Bush or Obama does now.

    I think it's part of the reason I get a kick, as a modern English-speaker, out of simplified, more telegraphic French creoles and regional dialects – they're a better fit for the fashion I've been trained to like in my own mutt of a language. Will French ever move in more that direction? Who knows? When I read standard French today, it sounds to me like they never took off their powdered wigs, because that's the last setting where I imagine English sounded like that – but to them, their cut-crystal formality is exactly what cutting-edge modernity should sound like.

  2. Guy said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 12:03 pm

    Although I'm sure some portion of "blooming" is due to some languages being overall more concise than others, I imagine some of it is simply an inevitable result of translation – that in general, given two equally "concise" languages, translations in either direction can in general be expected to be longer than originals. I expect this because the translator will often feel obliged to retain nuance that is easily expressed in one language but not the other, but will less frequently condense. I suspect that condensation in translation would be less common both because a) the original author chose to express themself in a way that is tailored to the original language and 2) condensing a complex expression into a simpler one when possible in the target language but not the source language requires a greater degree of insight or skill on the part of the translator, with a mastery of the idiom of the target language.

  3. Guy said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 12:23 pm


    It's always difficult to decide when a variation in style should be attributed to the language itself. I agree that some examples (like the fancy sign-off) shouldn't really be considered a property of the language itself (I'm reminded of a college friend of mine from India who would address emails to his professors with some collocation like (paraphrasing from spotty memory) "dear most respected and esteemed Professor [name]" – I would not consider this a dialect difference between the US and India, just a difference in custom). But at the same time there are some differences that really ought to be considered part of the language. For examples le, some languages can comfortably use an imperative for a polite request or providing instructions, whereas others would use some other means of expressing a request because an imperative comes off sounding like a direct command. I think it would be inappropriate to analyze that as a difference that isn't part of the language "proper". Then again I suppose the distinction to be drawn here is slightly fuzzy and arbitrary, and it isn't clear to what purpose we would apply the distinction (if translating a "plain" text into a language where "ornateness" is in vogue, whether to make the translation ornate or plain seems to me an artistic/interpretive choice available to the translator), so it may not matter.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 12:31 pm

    I don't understand the comment about German being more "descriptive" than English and Russian being even more descriptive. I can puzzle a little German out with the help of a dictionary, so can somebody show me a sentence or two where the German is more descriptive than the English? Maybe translating the same Russian passage? (Not that the Russian original will do me any good.) Or is this something where you need to understand all the nuances and connotations of the German to see that it's more descriptive? In that case seeing the German wouldn't help me.

  5. Keith said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 1:42 pm

    I'm a native British English speaker, with a degree in French and I've also lived and worked in France for about three quarters of my adult life.

    One of the characteristics of French that I noticed very early in my studies of that language is that there is a natural, mechanical increase in word count when translating from English into French. Whereas in English I can take almost any noun and use it as an adjective simply by placing it before another noun, this usually does not work in standard, formal French and we have to use a genitive expression. For example, "the bathroom door", 3 words, becomes "la porte de la salle de bain", 7 words.

    I could go on at length, but typing on my cellphone is not the most comfortable way of explaining…

  6. H M Keegan said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 1:49 pm

    I always enjoy your postings but, surely, in the first paragraph, the sentence which reads "worked in Germany for awhile after WW II, and then immigrated to the United States."; shouldn't this be "emigrated to the United States". My reasoning for this is, that the sentence is describing her situation in Germany therefore, she is leaving Germany and therefore emigrating. If she had already left Germany and was describing her situation then she would have immigrated to the US. Am I being pedantic or just wrong?

  7. naddy said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 5:08 pm

    I don't understand the example about ducking for cover from the bombs. Just like the Englishman would yell "down!" rather than "would you please lie down on the floor", the German would just yell "runter!" instead of some long exhortation.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 5:40 pm

    @H M Keegan

    "If she had already left Germany and was describing her situation then she would have immigrated to the US."

    She has been in the United States for over half a century. Her point of view is that of the USA — she immigrated here.

  9. Pat Barrett said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 9:15 pm

    Regarding Russian, I looked through several books on translating Russian to English and I looked through several "Russian language today" type books but could not find any specific comments on Russian being somehow more descriptive…. except the usual praise for one's national language e.g. Lomonosov: R. has natural abundance, beauty, and force than is found in any other European language AND Karamzin citing Voltaire's admonition that it takes one's whole life to master one's own language and that Russians have, therefore, more work than anyone else. (Current R. Language, Rozental' etc. TR mine). But Dennis Ward in The R. Language Today, offers this view: Judgments of the aesthetic qualities of a language as a whole, in so far a they are possible, are suspect, for the only criteria applicable are completely arbitrary. If we say that Russian is a 'clumsy' language, then w can only mean that it does not express things in the same way as some other language e(presumably our own) and we have arbitrarily taken that other language as our yardstick. "
    My own sense in reading languages is that each has its own genius: for Latin I find it in the use of participles, in Spanish, the use of reflexive verbs, in Russian, the balance of verbal aspect, and so forth (leaving you to assume I read lots of other languages…..I'm working on them). There truly is a delicious moment when you realize what you have just heard or read is unique to that language and you got it.

  10. Pat Barrett said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 12:34 am

    Here's a detailed example (from Handbook of Translation from Eng to Russ by V.N. Kommissarov et al. p. 72 (TR mine)
    Here's yet another clear example of the use of the concretization of the sense when translating:
    It is remarked that Lord Kew hardly has any communication with his cousin, Sir Barnes Newcome. His Lordship jumps into a cab, and goes to the railroad (Thackeray The Newcomes)
    By all noted, that Lord Kew not once has not gone to his cousin, Sir Barnes Newsome. Lord Kew jumped (R. yurknul = dart) into a hired carriage and ordered to take himself to the railroad.
    In this example the concretization of the sense via translation is used in 4 cases: the verbs jumps yurknul and goes orders himself taken; abstract and somewhat indefinite 'has any communication' changed more definitely to 'not once hadn't gone to'; finally, the expression 'it is remarked is concretized to 'by all noted'.
    If anyone is interested in the Russian I could put a Romanized version on my blog. The book is from 1960, the Soviet era (many quotes are from The Daily Worker), and so surely unavailable now.

  11. Nathan said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 5:08 am


    Sure, the underlying grammar affects a language's length as well – I shouldn't have made it sound like I might not agree (@Keith's example of the bathroom door is really good, and reminds me that French often demands strings of "de"s, whereas English style hates "of"-"of"-"of"). I guess that from this particular translator's perspective, differences in grammatical or spelling length came off as purely mechanical – they were things I didn't have a choice in when I was writing, so they exercised me less – but differences in stylistic length were what could really make me bang my head against the desk sometimes, because it seemed like the impossibility of doing simultaneous, miraculous justice to both languages' styles might be more my personal failing as a writer?

    @Jerry Friedman and Pat Barrett

    When I was a teenager, an old Russian academic decided she had to tell me that English is "laconic" compared to Russian. Her main reason was that Russian has productive diminutives with "-chik," and English doesn't. I never forgot that one: English and Russian both have huge vocabularies and wealths of synonyms – but because English makes things small and cute by adding extra words instead of a suffix, we're impoverished? Totally agree that everyone tends to think their language is the best just because, and we make up reasons after the fact.

    That said, I did buy an analysis of Eugene Onegin that argued it's nearly impossible to do justice to in English, partly because of how easily Russian rhymes, and partly because of how easily Russian lets Pushkin jump from a metrical line divided into two super-long words, to a line made of staccato monosyllables (the example was from a scene describing an acrobat, which used the variation in rhythm to evoke the action). Things that are possible in English, but harder to sustain in natural, propulsive language over pages of verse.

    (Aside on French poetry: It blew my mind to learn that because French doesn't give different stress to different syllables, it doesn't have poetic metre in quite the same sense as English or Russian does: Classic French alexandrine metre is simply 12 syllables on each line, nothing else.)

  12. DG said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 7:26 am

    There's an apocryphal story I've heard, that supposedly the Soviet Army did a study of how long it takes to give orders in different languages, and it found that in Russian it was significantly faster than in either German or Japanese, and so it probably contributed to the WWII victory. However, it was slower than English, which worried the generals. However, someone observed that in actual wartime situations Russians never use "normal" language, but in fact use "mat" (obscene slang), and once they measured that, it turned out much faster even than English.

    It goes to show that Russians are very proud of their swearing ability:)

  13. Mr Punch said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 8:16 am

    To the guest poster's point on translation from French: Teaching in California in the '70s, I found that (some) students of Spanish-speaking background tended to write papers that were in perfectly passable English but were very wordy — elaborately phrased compared to those of most of their peers. I learned to ask for a 5-7 page paper rather than 5 pages.

    @Guy: The difference you note between French and English poetry has meant that the French poets who have most influenced English poetry are not necessarily those who were most influential in France.

  14. Robert Coren said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 9:25 am

    Running through my head while reading this is a passage from E. M. Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread, in reference to a letter sent by an Italian man to the mother of his deceased English wife (transcribed from memory, but I think it's pretty close):

    "…The solicitors had sent a ponderous translation, in which 'Preghiatissima Signora' was rendered as 'Most Praiseworthy Madam', and every delicate superlative (and superlatives are delicate in Italian) would have felled an ox."

  15. raempftl said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 11:22 am

    In a book for French students of German, I once read the advice that a certain grammatical feature of German where the French aquivilant has a poetical touch is just normal German and thus should be translated into normal unpoetical French. If I remember it correctly, they were talking about the extended attribute phrase.

    As also noted in the wikipedia article, this is a feature often used in written or formal oral German. Patents for instance make extensive use of it. For me as German native speaker, it does not feel poetical at all.

    The same wikipedia article also says: German sentence structure is somewhat more complex than that in other languages. (You don't say!) Interestingly, French texts often feel a bit boringly linear to me. While English feels fast-paced.

  16. richard said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 3:05 pm

    Back in a previous life I was technical editor for a computer company, shepherding our manuals and online help systems through translation into French, Spanish, Italian, and German (and, eventually, Japanese). The English originals were always longer than the translations, although the German tended to be only a bit longer, whereas the French, Spanish, and Italian were significantly longer. One culprit was the love of engineers for noun piles, which of course worked fine in German but never failed to confound the other translators. The other was the engineers' willingness to verb nouns, and then use a prefix like "de-" or "un-" rather than find a better word. "View 'Settings' on the View Menu to change View Settings" is one that sticks in my mind (also "uninsert" rather than "remove"), but there were many, many phrases far worse than that.

    And thus the need for a Technical Editor….

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 5:13 pm

    Pat Barrett: I agree about people's chauvinistic views of their own languages. Though who knows—maybe Lomonosov's comment helped to counteract Western opinions of Russians as half-barbaric and thus instilled the confidence necessary for later Russian masterpieces. Sort of like MYL's example of the Episcopalian Sunday School teacher who believes in evolution but teaches the story of the Flood.

    Thanks for the example from Komissarov. I'd say Thackeray was part of a rather abstract period in English fictional style, and modern writers would probably be a bit more concrete. I'd say the back-translated Russian looks rather inaccurate. Surely Russian offers a natural way to say "hardly any communication" without distorting it into "not once had gone to", or "noted by some" instead of "noted by all".

    Nathan: In general it's impossible to do justice to great poetry (which I've heard Onegin is) and I'm not surprised there are poetic effects that you can make a habit of in Russian but work only as special effects in English. I suppose a line with eight or nine syllables and only two words would be totally impossible in Chinese. Likewise I'm sure there are things in English poetry that are hard to translate into Russian, etc.

    (By the way, the French alexandrine has more rules than just twelve syllables. Into the 19th century, there had to be a caesura after the sixth syllable, and I think there are other rules too, but I'm out of my depth.)

  18. Pat Barrett said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 7:13 pm

    The Russian podoshol means "approach", so 'not once approached'. The root means 'go', do means 'up to', so 'go up to' or 'approach'.

  19. Pat Barrett said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 9:51 pm

    Take expressions in English using phrasal verbs, like "She is laid up and can't get around". There is nothing in the lexical status of those words which would indicate 'bed ridden' or "incapacitated" nor 'ambulate', 'be mobile'. Yet we native English speakers easily apprehend the meaning. How is that stated in other languages: more specificity or the same, i.e. a 'locution' or 'idiomatic usage' as in English?

  20. Matt McIrvin said,

    August 19, 2015 @ 11:17 am

    In French poetry, the meter is simpler because of the lack of syllable stress, but they've got a deeper concept of rhyme; there are "rich", "sufficient" and "poor" rhymes and the distinction between them is something one talks about when analyzing rhyming verse. I think that that's possible in French because the narrower range of word-ending sounds means that finding a word that rhymes at all is much, much easier in French than in English, so the easiest rhymes start to sound trite.

  21. Martin said,

    August 22, 2015 @ 4:46 pm

    The first odd example seems really strange to me, to put it mildly. English and German are not exactly two different worlds when it comes to basic vocabulary and structure: What are the chances that English has a simple indicator of direction/position where German needs a whole sentence to convey the same information? How plausible is it, really, that the only way to give a simple shelter warning in the face of an imminent deadly danger in German (or any language, for that matter) is the equivalent of "Please lay down on the floor."? Why would German – even under the most strained assumptions about cultural constraints and stylistic conventions – need a "please" here? What strange malfunction of German (or 'German thinking', really) could possibly disallow to imply the verb ("legen") and position ("on the floor") of the yelled (!) "down"-indication in this context? Does anybody believe that German is so sclerotically pinned down by some Hegelian style convention that you literally have to 'explain' what can be implied in English, even in the most urgent situation one can possibly imagine? The authors of the "Huh?" paper should know, because I guess Germans always ask "Entschuldigung bitte, ich habe Sie nicht verstanden, könnten Sie das bitte wiederholen?" instead of "Huh?". Or else they use English "Huh?"?

    To put it more succintly: German "runter" (or, more to the North, maybe "hinunter") would be a perfect substitute for "down" in this context. So, whyever they yelled "down" in this situation, I highly doubt the implied explication here.

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