Translation and Language Plurality

In English, there are just two forms of plurality, singular and plural. Children in English-based schools learn to form plurals from the earliest of years, and is quite simple for the most part. Just add an “s” or an “es”; sometimes, change the “y” to “I’ and add “es”. The handful of exceptions are learned as the children grow. In English, we also learn to match the indefinite articles to the nouns: a lion, an apple, the apple, the lions. For many English speakers without a bilingual reference, there has never been a thought that this isn’t the way that all languages work.

What do you do, however, when working with a language like Romanian that has three plural variations or Japanese that does not typically define numbers the way the English do? How do you prevent issues where “the bird” refers to one bird, ‘the birds’ refers to more than one bird, but the readers are confused because they don’t know if you are referring to a certain group of birds or the entire classification of birds? To an English speaker, this would never happen, but in many languages this a very real problem and the translation could dramatically change the meaning of your text.

Several Common Translation Issues When Dealing With Plurals

  1. When dealing with numbers, issues may arise when the plurality of a question does not match the potential answers. For example, when a form says “number of items”, “items” is plural. If the respondent just wanted zero or one item, they might not understand what to do because the question is asking for a plural response. While this might not make sense to a native English speaker, it can be very confusing when presented in other languages. You have to remember that translation does not just involve swapping out words one-for-one. There is often a completely different thought process that is followed based upon the culture and language.
  2. Words that can be plural or singular. Scissors, pants, clothes, and equipment each have singular and plural meanings. The number must be determined by context. Issues can be avoided by saying “one scissors, two scissors, etc.”
  3. Words that can be plural or singular based on the language. International words such as “euro” can be both singular and plural. For example, in German, Dutch, and Italian you would say one euro and ten euro, but in Portuguese, English, and Spanish it’s one euro but 10 euros.
  4. Languages such as Slovenian, Russian, and Welsh have several plural forms. When translating from a language that only has two forms, the translator must decide which of the words gets translated into a form that does not exist in the source language and how to do that. When translating the other way, the translator must decide how to take a concept that does not exist in the target language and best approximate its meaning.
  5. Languages like Japanese do not have an equivalent to the English singular and plural, and verbs may not align with the number of subjects. When translating to or from these languages, it is very important to clearly delineate the number of items being referenced.
  6. Languages like Hindi use the plural forms of words to show respect to their elders.
  7. Plural ideas such as “few”, “many” or “much” are not found in some languages, and in others have different meanings than they do in English. Limit the use of these words.

Problems Associated With the Plural Challenge

In addition to the obvious lack of fluency and the risk of your document sounding amateurish, there are other potential issues associated with making mistakes with plurals.

Perhaps the greatest risk is simply not ordering or receiving the proper number of parts, items, or products. While this internal issue is frustrating and can cause problems, there is a greater danger if your customers receive the wrong number of items. This can cost you futures sales, a loss of reputations, and the expense of making things right.

In situations where plurality is associated with cultural honorifics, the lack of understanding could lead to an embarrassing faux pas. While this mistake might be overlooked, it also could cost you business or lead to the denial of your documents.

When dealing with technical documentation, mistakes could be very serious. Numbers, amounts, and procedures are essential components of technical writing. In languages where plurals don’t translate, you need to be very specific to avoid major snafus.

Overcoming the Challenges

The greatest way you can overcome the challenge associated with plurals is to be very clear in your language. Understand, many of these issues can be fixed by your translator, but this can take time and money. Other issues will have to be resolved by you through communication with your translator, and this will take more time and money. In order to speed up the translation process, increase translation accuracy, and keep expenses down, try these proven methods when dealing with plurals:

  1. Avoid words that are not specific. Words like few, many, and much will always cause confusion. If your text is going to be translated, eliminate them from your documents.
  2. Use numbers. In languages like Japanese, an English plural has no meaning. “Tighten the screw” and “Tighten the screws” has the same translation. The difference would have to be determined through context. If you are dealing with a procedure, this could be very troublesome. Instead, use language like, “Tighten screw number one”, “hand me two screws”, or “Tighten all four screws”.
  3. When translating into languages like Korean, singular and plural are often not essential in the local language. If you feel that you must call attention to a noun’s plurality, ensure your translator knows about your desire or they may leave it out.
  4. Use specific language. Instead of saying “when the birds fly south for the winter”, be specific about the subject you are referencing since the entire classification of birds does not fly south for the winter. Instead, talk about “the Canadian Geese” who fly south. Remember, in languages that depend on context for clarification, the more concrete and exact terminology you provide, the easier it will be to provide an exacting translation.

Translators often have a difficult time reconciling the plurality of terms with the intent and meaning of a text. Those with experience, native-level fluency in the source and target languages, field-specific knowledge, and an understanding of the cultures are likely to work through your text with a great deal of success. However, the more ambiguous the text, the more time it will take translate, especially in language pairs where there are a great deal of linguistic and cultural differences.

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