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Thread: Translating prepositions

  1. #1
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    Default Translating prepositions

    Those of you who translate will have noticed how difficult it is to translate prepositions. They never overlap exactly in different languages, as we soon hear if we listen actively to banalities spoken into mobile phones by people who are "on" or "in" the bus, depending on the language involved.

    In some languages you find things "out of" a cupboard, rather than "in" one, as in English.

    In some languages you stay "into" the place you are at, rather than "in" it, also as in English.

    Prepositions such as "at" or "by" also cause problems when translating.

    Some languages even have postpositions instead of prepositions.

    And so on.

    Do any of the rest of you have examples of preposition problems between languages?

  2. #2

    Default Re: Translating prepositions

    Time prepositions are an example too.

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    Default Re: Translating prepositions

    Prepositions are the most difficult part of learning any given language as a foreigner. Each language has its own prepositional peculiarities and these even change over time. Even native speakers have trouble using them.

    One of the most intriguing ones for me in English: Why do you sit 'on' everything but 'in' a chair?

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    Default Re: Translating prepositions

    Could be wrong, but I have a notion that one can sit 'on' a chair with no arms, though one sits 'in' an arm-chair. I wonder if sitting 'in' an armchair is a usage somewhere between sitting 'on' a bench and sitting 'in' a bus, if there's a sense of somehow being enveloped by and hence 'inside' such a chair. . .
    the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on the dissecting table. . .

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    Default Re: Translating prepositions

    I agree in general with what Accidie says. An armchair is soft and encloses you (the arms that Accidie mentions). And maybe when the omnibus was first invented it was an open vehicle, so people sat on top of it rather than inside it with a roof. So tradition plays some part. The Swedes say "on the bus" like we do, but the Dutch say "in the bus". (You know this because of the endless mobile phone calls around you where people tell their loved ones exactly where they are.) The "bus" bit is in fact a Latin noun case ending for the expression "for all", i.e. "omnibus" in the dative or ablative case. But that case ending has become an international word for a public vehicle.

    As for time prepositions they are certainly a problem between languages. Why can't we (idiomatically) say : "I've never been there after" instead of using "since", when the meaning is the same? Convention, I suppose. The Finns say the equivalent of "as Monday" where we say "on Monday". As you are within the day in question, why not "in Monday"?

    But a translator is not there to question convention, merely to write idiomatic prose.

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    Default Re: Translating prepositions

    Quote Originally Posted by Stiffelio View Post
    Prepositions are the most difficult part of learning any given language as a foreigner. Each language has its own prepositional peculiarities and these even change over time. Even native speakers have trouble using them.
    They're not the most difficult part of learning Finnish as Finnish doesn't have them.

    Harry

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    Default Re: Translating prepositions

    True, Harry, true. But the little bits stuck on the ends of words in Finnish, Estonian, Turkish, Basque, Hungarian, etc., are like sort-of "pretend prepositions" which come after instead of before.

    Estonian has several postpositions which act like prepositions, are equally loose, but come after the word such as "päeva jooksul", the latter word meaning "during", the former word being the genitive of "day". The Estonians also alternate, with small subtle stylistic differences, between having an ending and having a postposition. So you can say "põrandal" or "põranda peal", both meaning "on the floor". The loose postposition is reckoned to be Germanic influence from German and Swedish.

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    Default Re: Translating prepositions

    Some Latin languages, such as French and Italian, but neither Spanish nor Portuguese, have the so-called 'pronominal particles', which are something like a mixture between prepositions and pronouns. These are the 'en' and 'y' in French, or 'ne' and 'ci' in Italian. They work like prepositions referring to a noun which has been mentioned in a previous sentence. They are easy to read and understand when listened to, but fiendishly difficult to apply correctly for the non-native speaker.

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    Default Re: Translating prepositions

    At school I had some problems with the "en"s and "y"s in French, but only if I had to use them: they were indeed pretty easy to understand, as you've said. In Italian of course I use them automotically, but I imagine the difficulties of foreigners.
    There are no such particles in Spanish: I remember when I started to learn Spanish that it sounded weird not having these particles.
    The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.

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    Default Re: Translating prepositions

    In learning Swedish, you have to grapple with the fact that "ett bord" means 'a table', but "bordet" means 'the table' - the "-et" being the neuter form of the enclitic [attached to the end] definite article. It seems odd to a foreigner that "ett" can mean 'one' but "et" can mean 'the'.

    Harry

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    Default Re: Translating prepositions

    It doesn't seem odd, it is! I thought that modifiers were either before or after the head of the phrase. I didn't know languages could have both possibilities.
    The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.

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    Default Re: Translating prepositions

    Quote Originally Posted by Loki View Post
    It doesn't seem odd, it is! I thought that modifiers were either before or after the head of the phrase. I didn't know languages could have both possibilities.
    The word "seem" has different nuances in English. I meant that it strikes a foreigner as odd, it IS odd for a foreigner, that (etc.), not just that is has the appearance of being odd. I think Ital. sembrare is the same, as in mi sembra strano che (?).

    Harry

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    Default Re: Translating prepositions

    Yes, I was just emphasising the fact that it is indeed odd.
    And yes, you're right: in Italian it is the same thing.


    Getting back to the topic: why do you say "congratulate ON sth"? We only say "for sth", meaning "because you did this right, or you achieved sth" etc. Is there some sort of logic I'm completely missing?
    The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.

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    Default Re: Translating prepositions

    Quote Originally Posted by Loki View Post
    Yes, I was just emphasising the fact that it is indeed odd.
    And yes, you're right: in Italian it is the same thing.


    Getting back to the topic: why do you say "congratulate ON sth"? We only say "for sth", meaning "because you did this right, or you achieved sth" etc. Is there some sort of logic I'm completely missing?
    There's no logical reason for these things. We would always say "congratulate on", but in many other prepositional phrases you have a choice of preposition, e.g. different from, different than. A lot of people these days are saying "I'm bored (or, fed up) of" something, but I would still say "I'm bored with". Young people's usage sometimes differs from that of older people, e.g. younger people are more likely to talk about doing something "on the weekend", while us oldies stick to "at the weekend".

    One that really drives me crazy is when people, talking about dates, perhaps, say "between 1987 to 1990". That I would actually class as bad English, which should be "between 1987 and 1990".

    German is another language where it's difficult to master the use of prepositions like "an", "auf", "bei", "zu" usw. A pub will have a name like "Zum Schwarzen Ferkel", where "zum" obviously doesn't mean "to the". More like "at the", as in Czech "ů". Some German aristocrats have titles like "von und zu ...".

    Harry

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    Default Re: Translating prepositions

    Stiffelio mentions that particle they have in French and Italian. Curiously, they have it in Dutch too: "er" which can mean the same as the French "y" or "en". I wonder how it is that two Romance and one Germanic language have these little things.

    When I first learnt Swedish, the fact that the definite article was stuck on the end fascinated me. I don't think about it much nowadays, which shows that you can get used to anything, however odd. They do it in Romanian as well. Again, a Romance and a Germanic language. How curious.

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    Default Re: Translating prepositions

    Quote Originally Posted by Loki View Post
    Getting back to the topic: why do you say "congratulate ON sth"? We only say "for sth", meaning "because you did this right, or you achieved sth" etc. Is there some sort of logic I'm completely missing?
    It's curious that this verb "to congratulate" also has a curious way in Italian "complimentare". Why is it "io mi complimento con qualcuno..." or "mi sono complimentato con........" instead of "io complimento qualcuno" or "io ho complimentato qualcuno"? In English (as in Spanish) the verb carries a direct object, whereas in Italian it's a nominative verb. The same applies to "wish" vs "augurare".

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    Default Re: Translating prepositions

    In English, we congratulate someone on his success or for having succeeded. In Swedish, the preposition "till" is used, which usually means "to" in the motion sense (e.g. går till stan = walks into town). So you get "Jag gratulerar honom till förstapriset", i.e. "I congratulate him on [winning] the first prize".

    Yet another preposition that isn't the same in one language as it is in another.

    I've noticed that in Spanish, you tend to put an "a" in front of a person's name where we have the straight direct object in English. I can't think of examples, but some of you can perhaps provide some.

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    Default Re: Translating prepositions

    Quote Originally Posted by Stiffelio View Post
    It's curious that this verb "to congratulate" also has a curious way in Italian "complimentare". Why is it "io mi complimento con qualcuno..." or "mi sono complimentato con........" instead of "io complimento qualcuno" or "io ho complimentato qualcuno"? In English (as in Spanish) the verb carries a direct object, whereas in Italian it's a nominative verb. The same applies to "wish" vs "augurare".
    I Italian you can use both "complimentare" and "complimentarsi", although the first one is not much used I guess. "Complimentare" carries a direct object, that is: you say "io complimento qualcuno per aver fatto qualcosa" (see here: http://dizionari.corriere.it/diziona...imentare.shtml), although to me it sounds pretty weird. Or you can say "complimentarsi CON qualcuno": I think you can't use a direct object with a reflexive verb.


    As for the Spanish preposition "a" it is used in sentences like "quiero ver a Juan" (I want to see Juan), or "matar a alguien" (to kill someone). On the contrary, you say "ver el partido de futbol" (to watch the football match). It used to drive me mad at the beginning, but then, as you've said, you can get used to everything.
    Incidentally, it is used in some dialects in the south of Italy, probably because of the influence of Spanish in the XVI and XVII centuries.
    The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.

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    Default Re: Translating prepositions

    In English we say "I speak Russian", "do you speak Italian?" etc., with "speak" as a transitive verb taking a direct object.

    The Slavonic languages differ from each other on this point. In Slovene you can say "govorim slovensko", and in Serbian or Croatian (if you must differentiate them) you can say "govorim hrvatski/srpski", and in Czech you say "moc nemluvim český" (I don't speak much Czech), but the Russians and Poles speak "po russkii" and "po polski", with a preposition. A bit like saying "to speak in (Russian/Polish)", I suppose.

    Harry

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    Default Re: Translating prepositions

    Quote Originally Posted by Loki View Post
    I Italian you can use both "complimentare" and "complimentarsi", although the first one is not much used I guess. "Complimentare" carries a direct object, that is: you say "io complimento qualcuno per aver fatto qualcosa" (see here: http://dizionari.corriere.it/diziona...imentare.shtml), although to me it sounds pretty weird. Or you can say "complimentarsi CON qualcuno": I think you can't use a direct object with a reflexive verb.
    Loki, you explained exactly what I meant, only you did it better :-)

    My point is that, as far as I know, only in Italian are such verbs like "complimentarsi" and "augurarsi" reflexive. The literal translation in English would be something like "I congratulate (myself)...on (your) whatever", which is certainly odd.

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