Jenny ström herold och Magnus Levin i bibliotekmiljö

How do translators handle complex phrases? New research examines different strategies

Different structures between languages force translators to come up with strategies to maintain the flow in the text while staying true to the original. Thanks to SEK 3.3 million in funding from the Swedish Research Council, linguists Magnus Levin and Jenny Ström Herold can examine these strategies for one of the translator’s challenges: the noun phrase.

The project is called “Translating complexity: Noun phrases in English-Swedish-German contrast” and will run for three years. In the project, the researchers will study how translators tackle so-called noun phrases, phrases that can consist of several successive nouns. Levin uses an example to explain how this can cause problems for translators:

“One example of such an English phrase is ‘the climate change denial movement’ where four nouns are combined each other. Even closely related languages can differ greatly in noun phrase structure. This becomes clear if we use literal translation when translating the example to Swedish: ‘klimatförändrinsförnekelserörelsen’”, says Levin.

This is a typical situation where the translator must rephrase to improve readability, while keeping the result true to the original text.

Multiple different strategies

So, how do translators avoid using words that are difficult to read, where several nouns are combined with each other?

“As for language-specific tendencies, Swedish, for instance, seems to prefer placing more information after the main word. For example, ‘rörelsen för klimatförnekelse’, compared to German and English”, Ström Herold explains.

Another tendency is that translators often make their translations clearer to the reader than the original text.

Research based on the university’s database

In the research project, the researchers will now examine different strategies for taking on noun phrases in translations between Swedish, English, and German.

As a basis, they will use the Linnaeus University English-German-Swedish corpus (LEGS) of popular science nonfiction texts translated between all three languages. This database contains everything from biographies to cookbooks and self-help literature, and comprises five million words, which will be analysed both statistically and in-depth.

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The research project “Translating complexity: Noun phrases in English-Swedish-German contrast” is part of the research group The Linnaeus University English-German-Swedish Corpus (LEGS), which makes comparisons between English, Swedish, and German language structures.