'Tis the Season: blooming in translation and in art

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Jocelyn Ireson-Paine came across the Language Log posts which mention blooming: the increase in size of translated texts. She draws, and this made her think that if line drawing is regarded as translation from an original scene to lines, blooming can occur there too. She has written a brief note on this in "Drawing as Translation".

The essay was inspired partly by Jocelyn's thinking about what she does when she draws, and partly by English lecturer Matthew Reynolds talking about his book Translation: A Very Short Introduction.

It was the following comment by Judith Strauser to this post that prompted Jocelyn to contact Language Log to elicit further discussion on the subject of blooming in its various manifestations:

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.

See also "Blooming, embellishment, and bombs " (8/7/15)

Jocelyn thinks it would be good to explore the topic further. She would also be interested to see more analysis of the different ways in which language-to-language blooming can occur.

As someone who has done a fair amount of translation from Chinese to English, I can attest that sometimes it is necessary to inject elements not in the original for purposes of amplification and clarification.  However, a lot depends upon whether one is doing a literary translation or a Sinological translation.  In literary translation, I try as much as possible to avoid annotations so that the reader of the translated text can have as closely comparable an experience as does a reader of the original text.  With a Sinological translation, on the other hand, I can provide as many footnotes as I wish without fear of alienating or discouraging my reader.  Indeed, Sinologists revel in annotation and commentary, so, in general, the more the better.


  1. Judith Strauser said,

    April 11, 2017 @ 11:03 am

    What a delight to see one's comment made years ago brought back – and the ripples it produced!

    But I feel slightly ashamed, too, for not having brought to the original discussion the precise French term used in translators' parlance and studies, which I might have – ahem – translated a bit hastily then: foisonnement.

    If you look it up in a French/English dictionary, should you want or need to, you'll find that it means abundance, proliferation, profusion, and I obviously knew it. I just found that these options lacked a certain poetic character and, despite the organic connotations in some of them, they seemed to either carry other connotations more negative to my ear (proliferation, for example – perhaps because in French we mostly use it for scary processes like "the proliferation of nuclear armament"), whereas "foisonnement" is a word generally used positively outside of its precise meaning in translation circles. I also wanted a word which would grammatically carry a marker of process, evolution, change, etc., since "blooming" is an on-going process at work when we translate and not merely a result (more words "here" than there were "there").

    Is there really no other word in the English-speaking linguistic sphere for this phenomenon of expansion as pertains to translation, and if not, am I to consider that I truly am the origin of the use of "blooming", one random day in 2015, through my choice of translation for our "foisonnement"?

    (If so, I admit it is a legacy I would be perfectly happy about!)

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 11, 2017 @ 11:11 am

    All things in common nature should produce
    Without sweat or endeavour. Treason, felony,
    Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
    Would I not have. But nature should bring forth
    Of its own kind all foison, all abundance,
    To feed my innocent people.

    The Tempest, Act 2, Scene 1

  3. cameron said,

    April 11, 2017 @ 12:06 pm

    I used to study philosophy, and would often read French translations of German authors (especially Edmund Husserl) because no English translations were available, and reading French is so much quicker for me than reading German. In many cases, if I found a French passage incomprehensible, I would turn to the German original and find that the German text went almost word-for-word into English. The French translators would make tricky German passages "bloom" into an elaborate paraphrase. But a German passage that's tricky to render into French might be quite straightforward to render into English (of course it might also be just as tricky to render into English).

  4. Judith Strauser said,

    April 11, 2017 @ 12:15 pm

    Jerry, thank you for showing me foison used in an English language context. Is this to say you might have chosen "foisonning"?

  5. Christopher Coulouris said,

    April 11, 2017 @ 1:16 pm

    Dear Professor Mair,
    Two days ago I discovered that Burton Watson passed away on April 1. He was one of our greatest translators and a great inspiration. Any plans on a tribute post for him? Thank you.

    Christopher Coulouris

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 11, 2017 @ 2:56 pm

    Judith: The Shakespeare quotation was just for your interest or anyone's. I didn't mean it as a suggestion. If I knew about the intricacies of translation, I might have chosen something with less favorable connotations, such as "inflation" or "ballooning", or if I wanted something biological, "mushrooming" (much as I like mushrooms). However, I'm not going to argue with you experts.

    Of course, a translation 6-10% longer than "foisonnement" would have been appropriate.

    Side note: I'd spell "foisoning" without a double n, like "poisoning".

    Another side note: The "Shakespeare's Words" site offers five instances of "foison" in Shakespeare, four of which seem to have human annotations. Has someone done a tremendous amount of annotation?

  7. Judith Strauser said,

    April 11, 2017 @ 4:19 pm

    Jerry, thank you for your answer.
    It's particularly interesting to me that you say you'd have picked something with less favorable connotations, while I specifically chose blooming for a positive one! Both our biases are interesting, I think.
    Thank you for the spelling help too; I hesitated between foisoning and foisonning and I can't say what made me chose between the two.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    April 11, 2017 @ 4:25 pm

    @Christopher Coulouris

    Will gladly write a tribute post for Burton Watson later tonight or tomorrow sometime.

  9. Christopher Coulouris said,

    April 11, 2017 @ 5:33 pm

    Thank you Professor Mair, looking forward to your post.

  10. JK said,

    April 11, 2017 @ 8:23 pm

    Chinese to English translation generally results in a shrinking if you are going by character count to word count. I usually go by the rule of 10 Chinese characters to six English words when estimating the word count of a translation. But then again words in Chinese may be made up of several characters, so such a "size" comparison may be meaningless.

  11. Lugubert said,

    April 12, 2017 @ 2:39 am

    Technical translations can display the opposite process. I worked for a couple of years in the Swedish subsidiary of an extremely well known US company. First rule: Translations should be ca. 30 % shorter than the English original.

    I suppose the German percentage might be even higher: A tutorial had something like "Now please press button A." Swedish became "Tryck på A." (It was very obvious that button functions were being described.) I think the German would be "A drücken."

  12. Jocelyn Ireson-Paine said,

    April 12, 2017 @ 10:48 am

    Victor, thanks a lot for blogging this. I'd not thought of annotations and commentary. I suppose that on web pages, these could be implemented as links. So one form of blooming could be in "translating" paper documents to web pages, where links get added that obviously weren't on the paper.

    There are some examples of annotations in cartooning in the Whizzer and Chips cover shown at http://whackycomics.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/ringing-in-new-year-whizzer-and-chips.html , in the post "Ringing In The New Year: Whizzer and Chips (1986)" (1 Jan 2013) in the Wacky Comics blog by George Shiers. For example, the legends "PERSPIRING PROFUSELY" and "WAG! WAG!". Some artists use these to set up jokes. A history strip, which I think I saw either in "Whizzer and Chips" or "Cor!", had pictures of two Normans with huge long noses, one facing in the opposite direction to the other. These were labelled "Norman Conk-east" and "Norman Conk-west".

  13. Victor Mair said,

    April 12, 2017 @ 11:07 am

    @Christopher Coulouris

    Tribute: Burton Watson, 1925 – 2017 (4/12/17)

    Lotus Sutra; Leo Hurvitz; Columbia University Press; Jennifer Crewe; blooming

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