Some time ago, one of our freelance translators reacted animatedly to my report in the QA sheet regarding a minor stylistic error. This error had no impact on the positive QA result, but it did initiate a lively discussion. Neither of us was able to convince the other. When closing the sheet, I had the impression that the translator was somewhat bitter (he believed that the change was preferential). I, on the other hand, didn’t feel entirely comfortable, as I hadn’t been able to find a clinching argument, and at the same time I was convinced that something was wrong with the original sentence in question.
The ambiguity of the concept, or a non-linguistic perspective on style
Again, the dispute was about a stylistic error. Style is a concept appearing in several fields of study and in many areas of life. It’s not the differences in definitions of style adopted in individual fields that are interesting, but rather the strength of the stylistic norms defined within of each of them and the consequences of infringements thereof. Without any ifs, ands or buts, ski jumpers accept rules saying that, apart from points for distance, they are also scored on style. Each of us has their own style of dress, behaviour and speaking, and we usually refrain from criticising others (at least out loud) only because we don’t like their hairstyle, manner or conversational mannerisms. Similarly, no clear-headed person would claim that Gothic is “better” than Rococo just because they prefer soaring cathedrals to bulb-like palaces. And so on. Why then do we point out stylistic mistakes to translators?
Text style, or about difficulties in evaluation
For a linguist, style is (greatly simplified) the relationship between the content and the form of the text. From the ample palette of a language, we choose the elements that allow us to reach our objective, which was set before we started writing, in accordance with our linguistic habits. If the text we created fulfils its function, and our selections don’t seem too eccentric to the proofreader, everything is fine. Otherwise, in accordance with the company’s instruction, errors must be listed in the “Style” category. The examples of errors included therein are interesting enough to quote them here.
According to the instructions (developed, by the way, as per the MQM metric referred to here: https://themqm.org), a stylistic error is for example “an inconsistency with the client’s style guide”. Great, but “style guide” is a very broad name, and the contents of these documents very often have not much or even nothing to do with the notion of style described above. Then we have “the wrong choice of style, not matching the register of the translated text”, as well as “overly literal translation, archaic or informal style, etc. Also unnatural word order, in particular that copied from the source”. Admittedly, these expressions point out (rightly) the necessity to adapt the style to the nature of the text; however, they are applied very rarely as most translators easily recognise the function of the text and choose appropriate linguistic means.
Interestingly, some errors marked as stylistic, relatively frequently pointed out to translators, can very well be reduced to other categories, usually not raising as many doubts as the style – for example, not respecting the datum-novum rule, persistent inversions, or the aforementioned copying of the word order from the original text, are syntax errors. These are presented in our QA sheet in the category of “Language”. Perhaps proofreaders would find it easier to classify their amendments appropriately if we significantly limited the scope of the “Style” category? For example, we could phrase it in this way:
A stylistic error (major or minor) is any error not included in the other categories that violates the rule of clarity, simplicity and conciseness of style, making it difficult (seriously or marginally) to use the text.
This definition, although limited to non-artistic texts, may very well be used by translation agencies, where other types of texts are not usually processed. The key terms used therein (clarity, simplicity and conciseness) are quite intuitively comprehensible, and in case of doubt, we can always refer to a good dictionary for their contextual definitions.
Attachment to style, or about the need for self-restraint
According to the French scholar Buffon, “le style c’est l’homme même” – the style is the man himself. Indeed, in situations where styles are represented by people, we are struck by the close relationship between the style – of speaking, dressing or writing – and the person. We are usually very attached to our styles and find it difficult to lose them or to distance ourselves from them even for a short while. (For example, for me it wasn’t easy to present this text in short and concise sentences, because I admire George Bernard Shaw and I would prefer to use much longer compound sentences.) It is worth remembering this when assessing a translator’s style. No one likes to be disliked, and after all, the expression “major stylistic error” may be construed as an indication of non-acceptance of, citing Buffon — a person. The discussion with the translator mentioned at the start of this piece taught me self-restraint. I use the category “Style” very rarely; instead, I place the sentence “Also minor stylistic changes” in the comments field. After all, a change is something a bit nicer than a correction.
A note about the Author
Adam – an expert terminology coordinator with 15 years of experience at Studio Gambit. An inexhaustible source of linguistic knowledge. Owner of a charming radio voice. A lover of poetry and good wine.
 According to the datum-novum rule, in Polish we put the known information (datum) at the beginning, and the new (novum) at the end of a sentence.