I posted this in English but they suggested this site. The question was about the English language because of roughly 50/50 Germanic/Latin roots. Anyhow here it is...

I have often daydreamed about writing a computer-script that would look up the etymology of words, to i.e. Latin or Germanic, in a book and give me their roots.

Having done that I would ask the script how many words are rooted in Germanic if the book is translated from a German novel vs. a French novel.

The question is: are translators biased towards the original languages?

My idea is that if a translator translates a French medieval text, it would have a higher ratio of "fancy" Latin words than if it was i.e. the Icelandic sagas... and vice versa

Is this a known "issue" in the field of literary translations?

Not a native English speaker and no background in any field related to these issues so pardon my French and excuse me.

  • 1
    I don't know the answer, or if there is any research. But I think that it is much more to do with the flavour the translator wants to convey than with the source language. In some cases, the translator may indeed want to remind the reader of a French or German (or whatever) milieu; but not necessarily. I first knew The Mabingion in Lady Charlotte Guest's 19th century translation, which used old-fashioned (even for then) literary expressions. When I came across it in a 20th century translation I at first didn't like it, because it was in a colloquial, story-telling style.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 12 at 15:23
  • I think Colin's right. There are a lot of factors involved; for instance, in translations from German classics, nobility is frequently represented by speech. In English the fancier words are Latinate, but in German they're not. A translator would have to consider the impact on the reader.
    – jlawler
    Jan 12 at 15:40
  • Considering the main reason for such a phenomenon if it did happen would be the translator's noticing of cognate words between the two languages, it would have a likely insignificantly small impact on the total ratio for two reasons: 1. The number of cognates which are clear to bilingual speakers is relatively small, and even then, sometimes the two words may have diverged in meaning, so it isn't helpful (however, in the case of French, the number of clear cognates with similar meanings is likely higher). 2. The translator's first language has to be the language being translated from... Jan 13 at 9:19
  • ... and their proficiency in English has to be at least somewhat low. If their job is being a translator, the likelihood of both of these being fulfilled is not very high. Jan 13 at 9:21
  • @QuintusCaesius-RM: It is good practice that translators translate to their native language. However, there is a potential psychological mechanism that could explain an excess in cognate forms or even just a bias to L2-derived words, namely Priming. But before speculating about this, an effect needs to be established first. Jan 13 at 9:53

OK, this question opens a wide field, namely the study of translationese or the language produced by translators. There is a list of postulated features of translationese (like normalization, convergence, and shining-through, cf. e.g. this paper by Bizzoni and Lapshinova-Koltunski or this one by Volansky, Ordan, and Wintner) that can be studied using corpora of translations and comparable original texts.

I am not aware of studies taking an etymological bias into account but this does not preclude the existence of an effect here (as one criterion in operationalising shining-through). The reason is that corpora with etymological annotation are rare and etymological tagging is not a standard task in Natural Language Processing (NLP). So there is still some research to be done.

  • Ah, "translationese", fancy concept I was not aware of. Thanx. Will wait to see if others weigh in
    – AWE
    Jan 12 at 20:24
  • Add to that, extracting roots from an etymological database would might not suffice, because many words have been naturalized to the point that speakers might judge them differently as to probable origin, if the investigation should be focused on the subjectivity of the writer. By the way, mistakes are often diagnostic in Stylometry, which I do not know much about.
    – vectory
    6 hours ago

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