The following is a chapter of an 'Inter-cultural Awareness Workshop' I held for PowerGen's Project Team in 1998. The program aimed to help the ex-pat team having problems in communicating with Hungarian parties. This part focusses on the aspects of translation as a communication interface device. (© Andras Ranki, 1998)


Re.:         iii.2. Communication by language


iii.2.a) Formal aspects of using language - as a reliable source of misunderstanding


Since you communicate through translation, you should review how you use your own language and how a translator does his job. No matter, how good a translator is, his first round of perception would be based on his knowledge of formal grammar:


Example 1:         Knock, knock, who’s there?”

“It is me”.....


Although the correct answer is ‘It is I’ [Who is the man at the door?  ’ - ‘I am the man at the door’], the idiomatic ‘it’s me’ cannot really mislead a translator in understanding the answer.


Example 2:                     How would you say it in English?


„A funeral director promises that, after the completion of the deal, he would never drive faster than his partner who wants to buy his business out.”


(Answer:) “An undertaker undertakes that he would never overtake his overtaker after the takeover.”


Here, the translator has to translate sets of idioms where the meaning is seemingly inconsistent with the logic of the grammar. (After all, if a mixer mixes then a washer should wash, and there is no reason why the overtaker should not overtake the undertaker without the undertaker’s undertaking)


Give some examples of the above (overcharge – charge over, etc).


Example 3:                 In what way is Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony 'pathetic'?


The translator often meets similar misuse of similar experssions in their English or Continental meaning respectively (of 'pathétique' in this case) There have been European attempts of creating EU-nglish words by the application of Continental use of grammar. Having been seasoned by ISO standards and EU Directives, the following sentence does not sound that funny to me now as it did when I first had to translate: „After having been certified, the State Secretary would became institutionalised." (In fact, no matter how good the English spoken by non-British is, an interpreter must make special efforts on conveying the intended meaning - allowing for a party's possible misuse or misunderstanding of English).


Example 4:         How do Hungarians speak?


Hungarian: a Ugro-Finnish language


The Ural-Altaic languages (and Ugro-Finnish ones within) have different concepts to using language from the Indo-European ones. Here are some Hungarian examples for illustrative purposes:



Whilst the existence of a masculine, feminine and neutral third person (he, she, it’) is common to Indo-European languages, Hungarian only has one single-gender third person (ő) covering any person or object.


Modes and word-endings

      Hungarian has an extensive number of grammatical modes mostly expressed at the end of the words, but it is dissimilar to Indo-European conjugation or declension as in Hungarian the number of ‘cases’ is infinite.

      The reasons for it are

ember = man           embert = man (obj. ‘I saw a man)        emberről = about (a)        man,  embertől =

from  (outside a) man       emberből = from (inside a) man

szeretek = I like [love] (something indefinite); ----- szeretem = I like [love] it; -----  szeretlek = I

love you (‘thou’ – second person)


Genitive structure

In Indo-European languages the genitive structure is constructed from a

·        possessor (changing)  and the possession (remaining unchanged)

e.g.:  my (possessor)  book (possession);  or: the sound (possession) of music  (possessor );


whilst in Hungarian, the

possessor remains unchanged  and the possession changes

e.g.:  én (én=I=possessor) könyvem (könyv:book=possession) = I {book to me} or:

a muzsika (muzsika:music=possessor) hangja (hang:sound=possession)= the music {sound [belonging] to it}


The second person

      Te’ (or ‘ti’ [plural]: Similar to the ‘thou’ in English or ‘tu’ in French, with the difference that the formal (polite) ‘you’ or ‘vous’ has no equivalent conjugation nor addressing pronoun in Hungarian. Therefore, as the third person conjugation is used in formal addressing and there are three further degrees of formality within, (maga’, ‘Ön’, Mr. So-and-so) you may hear (in bad translation) “if the Mr. Chief Executive Smith agrees  ....” which simply means: “if you agree.....”



Word order - - linguistic origins of convolution


Although straight communication is desirable (and, would make a translator’s or interpreter’s life easier), occasionally one has to face convolution.


Example in English: Manslaughter Act (amending the Ten Commandments)


Section 5.     ‘A person (hereinafter: citizen) shall not wilfully or knowingly commit such an act (hereinafter: killing) that would directly or indirectly lead to the inevitably premature death of another person (hereinafter: victim), unless the victim is the citizen of another country with which the citizen’s own country is in war or other state of hostility and the citizen carries out his act of killing under the general or specific command of a person (hereinafter: commanding officer) exercising this right directly or indirectly according to the implicit or explicit aims or guidelines originating from his sovereign or otherwise (subsection 5A: commanding power in war or hostilities); or he commits his act in order to save his own and/or other’s life when the victim threatens his and/or other persons’ life (subsection 5B: justifiable self-defence); or………….’.


The grammatical and logical structure of this sentence clearly states ‘Thou shalt not kill’ at the very beginning of the sentence, and then refines specific conditions and circumstances using further levels of reference.






In Hungarian, the order of words and phrases (sub-sentences) is different, in extreme cases the subject is the last word of a very long sentence and often the verb (‘be’ or ‘have’) is also omitted.







Example in Hungarian: The girl who has been nowhere near the forest…..



(it is) Beautiful


was (instead of ‘is’)

a lány

the girl


‘s father

fejét díszítő paróka

the hairpiece decorating his head

anyagául szolgáló róka

the fox providing the hair

lakóhelyét körülvevő erdő

forest surrounding the (fox’s) home


foliage (of the forest)

felett a lombkorona ágai és levele

over (the foliage) branches and leaves of the trees

között átszűrődő naplemente

filtering through the sunset

pompás fényjátéka.

‘s colourful brilliance.


Translation of the whole sequence: The colourful brilliance of the sunset filtered through the branches and leaves of the trees over the foliage was beautiful in the forest around the hole of the fox, whose hair was used for making the hairpiece worn by the girl’s father’, but, starting from the top, adding any number of consecutive lines would make out a complete sentence in Hungarian (e.g. the first 3 lines: ‘The girl was beautiful.‘ or the first 5 lines: ‘The hairpiece worn by the girl’s father was beautiful.’).



iii.2.b)      Indirect use - the semantic aspect of language through translation


In the course of translating the sender’s message, not only should a good translator or interpreter translate the message, but he should make an effort in shaping the message in terms to be understood by the receiver. In order to become more aware of this point, try to emulate the process of translation from and to your own mother-tongue.

Exercise1:                      Elementary translation from English to English


a)      Descriptive (synonymous) translation, eg. say it in English: ‘Buttered toast’.

         [Eg.: A slice of bread, dry-roasted on both sides with a thin layer of margarine spread on one side.]


b)     Idiomatic translation, [e.g. in Britain:] A slice.


c)      ‘Naturalised’ translation: Decide on certain conditions, and try to say the same with synonyms or simili according to the given conditions. [e.g.: to a native Chinese]:“fatty, charred savoury rice-cake” [or to a child who does not know the word ‘toast’]:  “a slice of bread and butter, but first the bread is made crispy and yummy...” [etc.]


Exercise 2:                     Translate from Long to Short



“For the purpose of making this meeting focus on the issues and the priorities right, we should decide on what we consider key issues definitely to be discussed today, in what order and what shall we leave to another meeting. In my opinion, due to the importance we attach to it, the first issue, if you agree, we should deal with, is .......”



E.g.: “Let’s make an agenda. I suggest, the first point should be:...”


Exercise 3:                     ‘Targeted translation’ from English to English


“We have to choose between two alternatives: either to update our files under a new ‘UPDATE’ directory - in which case the unchanged files shall still remain in the ‘ORIGINAL’ directory, or replace the original files by the updates in the ‘ORIGINAL’ directory – then however, we shall lose the original files that we have updated.”


Here, the translator (or, rather, the interpreter) has to space out the information of this concise, and difficult-to-follow sentence, depending on whether the receiver is a layman or an expert.


Version One (the implications are expanded for non-experts)


“The recommended alternatives are: either to create an ‘UPDATE directory for the updated files or to update the files in the ‘ORIGINAL’ directory.


The advantage of the first option is that the updated files are accessible immediately in the new ‘UPDATE’ directory; but the drawback is that we shall have to continuously jump back to the ‘ORIGINAL’ directory for related data held in the unchanged files.

The advantage of the second option (on the other hand) is that we can work with all the files in the ‘ORIGINAL’ directory, but the drawback is that we cannot make historical data processing as we no longer have the old files.

Which one shall we choose?”


Version Two (summarised for experts)


”Let me draw the 2 alternatives in question


Option 1.:       :/UPDATE/newfile1,2,...n              ů ®

                                                                                              processing operations

                        :/ORIGINAL/related  file1,2,...n     ű ®

                                   [:/ORIGINAL/old file1,2,...n............................­]







Option 2.:       :/ORIGINAL/newfile1,2,...n            ů ®

                                                                                              processing operations

                        :/ORIGINAL/related file1,2,...n      ű ®

                                   [:/ORIGINAL/old file1,2,...n........  : not available]








Which one shall we go for, Option 1.  or Option 2.?’’



Exercise 4:                     Translate from CodEngL. to  Intelligible


“In order to get the FPXR off the ground, we must first be convinced that the Cihegawe-gang is on our side or, at least, not too close to the other GFK-s.”


Is it a plane? Is it a plan? It’s ‘Super-AN’! (In fact, it is the user’s manual of an open-cast mining bulldozer – if anybody hadn’t immediately recognised it  - or, is it a briefing on a negotiating strategy?)