My last blog looked at the importance of understanding the building blocks of written language – the verbs, nouns, etc. that make up sentences that in turn form arguments, list facts and create pictures. I stressed that, for the language industry, these building blocks are, literally, the tools of our trade.  For translators and interpreters alike, being able to convey the precise meaning – the exact word – shows just how important and valuable is the service we provide for our customers.  Today, with our fabulous technology and immense stores of knowledge, we tend to think that we can do all this so much better than our forebears, but for those who think they have a monopoly on wisdom, history provides a salutary lesson. To find out, I did a little Googling (internet searching is a fabulous piece of tech!) and it is clear that the most lucid thinkers have stuck fast to the same principles for millennia.  For example…

More than 2,500 years ago Confucius said:

“If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone”. 

Fast forward (quite) a bit to the 18th century, and we find politician, radical and writer William Cobbett making the following observation:

“Grammar, perfectly understood, enables us not only to express our meaning fully and clearly, but so to express it as to enable us to defy the ingenuity of man to give to our words any other meaning than that which we ourselves intend them to express. 

Then, in the 19th century and we have a lot of important people who realised the importance of simple and eloquent communication.  We can start with the British historian Lord Macaulay, who noted:

“After all, the first law of writing, that law to which all other laws are subordinate, is this: that the words employed should be such as to convey to the reader the meaning of the writer.” 

Also in the 19th century, the English poet Matthew Arnold (son of Thomas Arnold, the famous headmaster of Rugby School) said,

People think that I can teach them style. What stuff it all is. Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.”  

Robert Louis Stevenson, another 19th century man who knew a thing or two about writing, pointed out that:

“The difficulty is not to write, but to write what you mean, not to affect your reader, but to affect him precisely as you wish.” 

Moving on into the 20th century, there was another English historian, G M Young, who wrote:

“The final cause of speech is to get an idea as exactly as possible out of one mind into another.  Its formal cause therefore is such choice and disposition of words as will achieve this end most economically”.

And a very famous 20th century writer commented in April, 1947, that

“A scrupulous writer in every sentence that he writes will ask himself. . . What am I trying to say? What words will express it? … And he probably asks himself … Could I put it more shortly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing open your mind and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. (George Orwell)

See – it’s not just me!

Fiona Woodford, Head of Language Services, Global Connects