The Urge to Correct: Frustrations with Language Translation and Misuse

Hezy Asher

Hezy Asher

The following is a guest post by Hezy Asher, a technical writer at Quest Software Israel.

VITO CORLEONE: I want you to use all your powers. And all your skills. I don’t want his mother to see him this way.

[Removes blanket revealing Sonny’s mangled face.]

VITO CORLEONE: Look how they massacred my boy.

I was barely 14 years old when I saw Godfather I for the first time, almost three decades ago. I can recall the exact month (March 1980), and the cinema (which no longer exists) where I first saw this movie, but who knows how many times I’ve seen it since. If I were pezzonovante enough to be asked for a list of my all-time favorite movies, Godfather will undoubtedly be given the poll position, no matter how many years have elapsed since my irrevocable youth.

Why, then, does the highly emotional scene described above make me now only want to shout “perdoname, Don Vito, but one cannot massacre a single person, only slaughter!”? I guess the old Don cannot be blamed for his English mistake at this particular moment. It’s not you, Vito dear, it’s me. Being picky has become my profession, or to put it plainly, I have become a technical writer.

Yes, methought I heard a voice cry: Enjoy movies and books no more! You have made it your business to rebuke other people’s language, to indicate their faintest English fallacies, to let them feel how negligent they were when they left that redundant comma, the nail for want of which the document kingdom was irretrievably lost. Now you are doomed not to enjoy watching a movie or a TV program, or even reading a book, without noticing the language mistakes constantly made by the ignorant masses!

When living in a non English-speaking country, whose tribal lingua franca happens to be your mother tongue, the curse is even worse: you have to smother your mouth lest a horrible cry sneaks out whenever another horrific translation mistake pops out.

When I became a translator myself, back in 1993, I realized that examples of mistranslations are ubiquitous. The disrespect for the profession of the translator, and the resulting low payment, pushed me to the technical writing profession, which has enormously exacerbated my picking complex.

“And that recommendation, with the exaggerated estimate of my ability with which he prefaced it, was, if you will believe me, Watson, the very first thing which ever made me feel that a profession might be made out of what had up to that time been the merest hobby. At the moment, however, I was too much concerned at the sudden illness of my host to think of anything else.” (The Adventure of Gloria Scott”, from “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes”).

Oh, how I adore the greatest sleuth of all time, whose adventures have thrilled me for hours on end, making me feel infinitely obliged to his creator, the master storyteller Arthur Conan Doyle. Familiar as I am with his other writings, I still find Holmes the most enjoyable and enduring character Doyle has ever devised. At the moment, however, I am too much concerned with Doyle’s excessive use of “which” when he should have written “that”. I have even noticed a bloomer in Holmes’s stories, when Doyle wrote “insure” instead of “ensure”, but I was generous enough to let it off as a typing mistake.

“I think I’m gonna be sad,
I think it’s today, yeah.
The girl that’s driving me mad
Is going away.

She’s got a ticket to ride,
She’s got a ticket to ride,
She’s got a ticket to ride,
But she don’t care.”

(Ticket to Ride” – The Beatles)

“The girl that’s driving me mad”? “She don’t care”? Really, John and Paul, you should have known better. It was you (along with George, may his soul rest in peace) who made me become so interested in the English language, a page with your lyrics being my only friend through teenage nights while I was desperately trying to understand the meaning of your elevated songs. Manys the time you left me really frustrated (how was I supposed to know back then that “meet the wife” mentioned in “Good Morning” was a popular English TV program broadcast at 5 PM?); now I’m also troubled by your use of language.

Yes, my fate is definitely sealed; I am doomed to a picking existence, forever oscillating between the Scylla of poor English usage and the Charybdis of mistranslations. And to make things worse, my eye, so fast at catching other people’s mistakes, becomes so slow when I have to save myself from blundering, thereby making me an easy pray for the chief nourishment of every tech writer’s life: finding mistakes made by another hapless writer.

Hezy Asher is a lone technical writer at Quest Software Israel, as well as a freelance translator. Since 1993, he has translated several books, as well as many movies and documents, from Dutch and English to Hebrew and from Hebrew to English, and has worked as a technical writer at several hi-tech companies.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • Raj

    You have a nice & solid writing style mate… Keep it up! :) I feel that its easy to identify others mistakes, than our own!

    • Hezy Asher

      Thanks a lot. Following Larry’s footsteps, I may safely assume you left the “its” on purpose! Thumbs up.

  • Larry Kunz

    How true, how true! How easy it is for me to see other people’s slipups while overlooking my own. And how easy it is for me to make those mistakes. In the spirit of solidarity I’ll assume that you used “poll position” and “easy pray” in this piece deliberately, to satisfy the appetites of those of us who share your predilection. 😉

    • Hezy Asher

      Hi Larry,
      Thanks for the feedback.
      As for the mistakes – I did not do it on per pose; I wrote it at mid knight and was very tired :-).
      Actually, I left these mistakes as an appetizer for another article, dealing with the “Holy Trinity” of writing – spell checkers, machine translation and translation software. Hope to publish it soon – depending on the drooling anticipation of the eager masses…
      Take care,

  •!/christopherburd Christopher Burd

    Hi Hezy,

    I enjoyed your article. I wonder if you know Fowler’s Modern English Usage? If not, let me suggest you pick up a copy – the 1926 edition, not the revised versions. For two reasons: First, because you’ll love it; second, because it shows how much standards of good writing have shifted over the decades.

    • Hezy Asher

      Thanks a lot for the feedback.
      I regret to say I wasn’t familiar with this dictionary – you can bet your last buck I’ll be ordering it today :-). And yes, the usage of “which” instead of that, which is ubiquitous in Sherlock Holmes’s stories, is but one example – just like the to-day and to-morrow used there so often. I can assure you it’s the same in Hebrew, and it probably is in every living language (I have yet to master ancient Greek).

      • Tom Johnson

        I think the “that” versus “which” usage has evolved considerably over the past two centuries. It might be Fowler who invented the rule on using “that” for restrictive clauses and “which” for non-restrictive clauses. However, “which” can also be used for restrictive clauses, but I’m never quite sure of the exact usage.

  • B.J. Smith

    If only my youth had been irrevocable, too…. Alas, it lives on mostly in my imagination.

  • Yossi Karp

    Oh, how true! But it’s a good thing because it shows that we care about quality.

    Self-editing is an important skill, yet a potentially dangerous undertaking. It’s often difficult to find your own mistakes. That’s why peer reviews are vital, as is the ability to take criticism of your writing in the professional spirit in which it is given.

    I can forgive musical lyrics as there is usually cadence, rhythm, rhyme, and tempo to consider (not to mention poetic license).

  • Sarah

    Dare I point out your own errors? The missing apostrophe in “Many’s”, for instance, or the pray/prey confusion?

    Fun article, but I think you let your ego get ahead of yourself. Even the high and mighty (like you) are prone to easy mistakes, so you should have some compassion for others.

    And surely you can concede the value in artistic license? Those Beatles lines wouldn’t be as catchy if you had edited them.

    • Hezy Asher

      Thanks for the corrections, Sarah.
      However, I believe you took this column too literally. Of course I make my own mistakes and am very slow at catching them, as I indicated here. I’m not proud of this affinity to edit the world around me, nor do I do it to look down over other people, certainly not over the Beatles or Conan Doyle, whose linguistic boots I’m not worthy to lick. As a lone technical writer, who often has to edit REALLY poor texts written by Hebrew or Russian native speakers, you may safely assume that I do show compassion to other people, whose mastery of English is nothing to write home about, otherwise I would have felt the boot end of my employer at my b—-d ages ago.

      • Tom Johnson

        It’s almost certain that if you correct others’ grammar, people will scrutinize your own.