I go out of my way to attend Kenneth Quek’s talks because I edit for authors from many different language backgrounds, including a rapidly growing group of Chinese researchers. As the rare Chinese–English–Finnish specialist in our editing and translating community, Kenneth has become a linguistic and cultural explainer for the more than 1.3 billion speakers of the many dialects of Chinese and the 5.8 million speakers of Finnish.
Kenneth’s talk at METM22 focused on the mistakes Chinese and Finnish speakers make in English that reflect the grammar and structure of their own languages. Some of these grammatical and structural differences are shared between the two languages, which can lead Chinese- and Finnish-speaking authors to reinforce and propagate each other’s mistakes, i.e. what sounds “right” to both groups might still not be correct.
One area of overlap between the languages is that neither Chinese nor Finnish uses articles, with writers often unsure and even downright wary of navigating when to use “a”, “the”, or nothing at all. These authors try, they hit the mark more often than not, but when it doesn’t work the result can be hard for the editor to correct, especially when the subject matter is dense or specialized. I’ve learned to “stop, look and listen” for the missing article when I bump into a bit of puzzling text by a non-article-language writer. As Kenneth observed in his presentation, some of these writers have almost given up trying to get it right. The shared struggle to hit the mark can lead to awkward English in Finnish academic or business environments where a Finnish supervisor may be revising text written by a Chinese colleague (or vice versa).
Another area of overlap is topic prominence. In both Chinese and Finnish, the author starts by describing the topic, then brings in the subject and action as commentary. Kenneth even described this scene-setting as a crucial means of building trust in Chinese communication. This is in contrast to the strong emphasis on subject prominence in English.
The centrality of topic/context was something I hadn’t understood before Kenneth’s talk, but it explains a conversation I’ve often had with Chinese colleagues, especially graduate students:
Me: Why are you telling the reader all this here?
Author (frowning slightly): Well, you know, I need to explain what was… <waves hand> … already there.
After Kenneth’s talk, I now understand how some of the text I’m seeing is shaped by a battle between their deep-rooted need to establish the topic and my demand for concise subject-first English messaging (especially in scientific texts). It’s an insight that will help me help these authors in the future.
The third area of overlap is pronoun use, with Finnish and Chinese having different approaches to pronouns that make speakers of both languages more likely to drop them in English. While I wish we’d had more time to discuss this, it did reinforce how languages that place greater emphasis on context may have less need for words that describe the actors.
As always, the audience for Kenneth’s talk had many questions, not all of them related to the talk. We wanted to know even more about the structure and nature of the Chinese language; about how to work with Chinese speakers; about how Finnish and Chinese people communicate with each other. As always, Kenneth answered our questions with patience, humour and grace. Maybe next time we should let him give his talk and then have a long “ask-me-anything” session!
This METM22 presentation was chronicled by Katherine Mc Intyre.
Featured photo by METM22 photographer Jone Karres.