Fun with Translation

Languages are different. Everyone knows that, but many people misunderstand the situation. They think this simply means that the words are different.

What about grammar? Okay, they will admit that grammar is different, too. Remember those masculine and feminine nouns in high school French? Those funny endings on verbs in Spanish? Those forms that don’t even exist in English? Yeah. That’s what I mean. Different.

Ah, but it gets even weirder, and that’s where it can be fun. Let me explain another difference that comes up when translating from English into Palawano (an Austronesian tribal language in the Philippines).

Here’s a hint of where I’m going: Sometimes our punctuation rules cannot be applied to other languages in quite the same way.

In English, as in every language, we have quote margins. (No, this is not talking about speculative investments). Those words which tag on to tell you who spoke, such as “he said” or “the plumber muttered” are quote margins. Skillful writers know when how to best use them, and how to keep from overusing them and having clunky dialogue that sounds like a children’s book. And they know when they may omit them without causing confusion.

Then we blend this with punctuation. The English protocol is to put the quote—the part the speaker actually said inside quotation marks, and to put the quote margin outside. For example:

“When I woke up, I realized that I was alone,” he said.

Palawano will play along with this punctuation rule to a point, then it gets restive. First of all, Palawano grammar wants a quote margin in just about every clause. This would get very tiresome in English. Imagine how long you would read something like this before tossing it aside:

He said, “Well,” he said, “I think I’ll go home, now. Then when I get there,” he said, “I’ll make a sandwich and,” he said, “if you’re there, I’ll make one,” he said, “for you, too.”

Doesn’t work in English. Not only are there just way too many he saids, but having them mid-sentence is annoying to us. But in Palawano, this pattern not only fails to annoy the reader, it soothes and comforts them, and it’s how they know who is speaking and when the quoted speech ends.

Languages are different.

In Palawano, kuan ye means, “he/she said.” And when this cute little phrase is inserted mid-sentence, it often winds up in the middle of a word. Yes, you read that correctly. And so you wind up with a contraction where part of the previous spoken word being quoted, is attached to the quote margin, outside the quotation marks.

There’s not much of a way you can imagine that, so let me show you, first in Palawano, then in a mocked-up English example.

Telong ketawan.

This means “Three persons.” Telo means “three,” ketawan means “person” and the final –ng links the two words together in a phrase, so that “three” modifies “person.”

But if we put this in a quote, look where the kuan ye quote margin winds up:

Telo,” kuan yeng, “ketawan.”

Kuan ye ends up smack in the middle of the word telong. That little –ng is now on the end of ye. So even though the entire word telong is part of what the person said, the final –ng is outside the quotation marks in the written form.

To make it easier to see, here is an English example, although we don’t do this in English:

* “I would,” he said’ve, “come, if you had invited me.”

See how the contraction ‘ve was moved outside the quotation marks and attached to the word said? That’s what is going on in Palawano, the difference being, it’s grammatical for Palawano, but not for English.

There is no way to punctuate Palawano to keep all the quoted parts inside the quotation marks. So we have to rewrite the rule. The whole purpose of the rules concerning written forms is so the reader can clearly understand. So it’s perfectly acceptable to punctuate the Palawano example above in the way we did.

Languages are different. Even more so when you put them on paper.

Would you say’nt? I mean, wouldn’t you say?

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About Bill Davis

Writer, speaker and translation and language learning consultant. I write technical articles, poetry and humor, and I am working on my first novel which is set on the island of Palawan in the Philippines.
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2 Responses to Fun with Translation

  1. How do we ever learn how to speak?

    • Bill Davis says:

      “Have,” I said’nt, “they told you? I guess it’s a secret still.” Speaking of punctuation, the Culture Vulture could do a whole serie’s on apostrophe abuse in you’re blog. Oh, the mistake’s people make! Their so annoying. Its sick (sic).

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