How to avoid strife when writing essays

It is a classic dilemma for any Japanese student of English: with a deadline fast approaching, how to go about writing an essay when the target language is not the student's native tongue? Many assume it is easier to write an essay in their native language and then to translate it into English. In fact, this may be much more difficult than writing an essay in English from the beginning. Writing an essay in the target language from scratch may seem daunting at first, but it may save time and heartache in the long run.

Differences in structure

Essay forms in English and in Japanese are not the same. Since the basic form of an essay in English (introduction-body-conclusion) is very different from the standard Japanese ki-sho-ten-ketsu (begin-inform-develop-conclude) format, a direct translation of an essay in Japanese will normally have to be rewritten in the introduction-body-conclusion format, which can easily cause many headaches.

Locating the voice

Many sentences in English are deductive in nature while sentences in Japanese are inductive. Think for a moment about how often the word 'because' is used in English -- sentences using 'because' involve deduction.

In many declarative sentences, the reader is given a reason or reasons that 'prove' the first part of the sentence. Take for example the sentence "I like the rainy season because it's nice to stay indoors and read when it's raining outside". A good translation at the sentence level must contain this sort of logical relationship between the words, and this can sometimes be complicated.

A related problem at the sentence level is the question of voice. While most sentences in English are written in the active voice (for example, "The student wrote the paper."), sentences in Japanese are often in the passive voice (compare with "The paper was written by the student.")

A word-for-word translation of a Japanese sentence in the passive voice will produce an English sentence in the passive voice. Normally, these sentences will have to be rewritten in the active voice in order to make the writing more direct.

Simple is beautiful

Although all of this may sound reasonable, many people still don't want to write in a second language for fear that their writing will sound too simple. By writing first in Japanese and then translating, they think that they will be able to express more complex ideas than they would be able to if they wrote in English. This is undoubtedly true. But simple expression is not necessarily a bad thing.

In fact, one of America's most famous novelists, Ernest Hemingway, turned writing simple declarative sentences into an art form (see Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" or "The Old Man and the Sea"). Ask anyone if they would rather read a well-written, simple essay or a poorly-written complex one, and they will answer that they would prefer the well-written, simple essay. In writing, as with many other things, simple is often best.

The importance of flow

Perhaps the greatest problem with writing an essay first in Japanese and then translating it into English is that the writing will not flow. Someone writing in their native language is able to write in a certain rhythm because using the language comes naturally. Translation, on the other hand, interrupts the flow of prose. Expert translators in any language are those who can reproduce flow in the target language.

Of course, Japanese students might argue that writing so their English "flows" is impossible, but that is not the case. Since much of English comes in "chunks" of language called collocations, English students have already come across flow many times.

Think for a moment of the expressions "in the beginning" (three words) or "at the end" (three words). These are called prepositional phrases and usually come in groups of two or three words. Other examples of collocations include verb phrases like 'make breakfast' and 'cook dinner', and idiomatic expressions like 'have my hands full' and 'once in a while'.

When writing in English using collocations, it is possible to compose a phrase at a time, allowing some of the words to come in a natural and effortless manner. When translating from Japanese to English, however, students must contend with essay form, the differences in syntax and the problem of flow. The result is often one long word-by-word struggle.

Those hardy souls who choose to write in Japanese and then translate into English should understand that although it may be faster to write in Japanese first, the translation and rewriting part of the process will take a lot longer than the writing part. There may be no easier alternative than writing something in English from the beginning.

“Writing essays.” The Japan Times 26 August 2005: 18.

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