English as she is spoken

The Dutch are very good communicators who can get their message across well in spoken English, by and large. But actually putting the spoken word on paper is a pig with a different snout altogether.

Here are a few hints for translations of the informal spoken word:

  • It’s one area where using contractions (don’t, can’t, oughtn’t, it’s and so forth) is not only acceptable but actively to be encouraged
  • Don’t always use “isn’t it” for “niet waar”. Reverse the verb structure of the preceding sentence (and remember that it’s become a question):
    I can imagine that you’d like to keep up your swimming => wouldn’t you?
    Those rocks are enormous => aren’t they?
    A clash of heads can really hurt => can’t it?
  • The Dutch use “ja” as an interjection, which doesn’t mean “yes”. This was a translation of someone discussing their medical exam: in both cases, the “yes” should have been an interjection such as “well”
    Yes, it’s now 8.9 now and last time was 6.6 and yes, it’s up from 2.4 last year.
  • Double or single quotes? Personally, I prefer double: there’s less chance of apostrophes from possessives or contractions creating confusion. Some style guides or clients may insist on single or claim that double quotes are American English. Klant is koning – go with the flow.
  • Don’t worry about what the exact translation of fillers like “eens” and “nou” should be. The trick is not to get hung up on the equivalents of single words: take a step back and try to think how a native would have expressed the meaning, the semantics.
  • And please do punctuate it the English way. The final punctuation mark for what’s being said goes inside the quote marks. There is never an additional comma outside them. Lead the quote in with a comma, not a colon. Open with a high 6 or 66, close with a high 9 or 99 – never down on the line. And don’t leave the crucial information of who’s actually speaking until the end of a long quote.

Not that you usually want to transcribe everything the subject says. That’ll be full of pauses, half sentences, repetitions and interjections. Quite aside from the gestures and emphases that also add meaning. Making it readable is quite an art…

Prevalence: low. There aren’t too many areas outside fiction where natural speech is represented. Transcriptions of supporting interviews for scientific research and surveys is one, for example.
Frequency: very high. Quotes that are meant to be actual speech (as opposed to fake interviews) almost never sound right.
Native: nope. Or only in hurried translations.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

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