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Supermarkets are prominent in the news at the moment for reasons that none of us could have predicted even a few months ago, and have recently imposed an 80-item limit for online orders. One part of their in-store infrastructure that is perhaps not quite as busy as usual at present is the 'ten items or less' checkout. "Or less" as opposed to "or fewer" being the subject of endless grammatical debate. Yes, for this month's blog, we'll briefly hover on the pandemic but quickly segue into the bread-and-butter of the English language and its pitfalls. Bright and breezy rather than despondent and downhearted. We'll give a quick update on how the situation is affecting us at the end, but, just as with Brexit, it's essentially business - if not life - as usual at LingServe.
So, on with the blog: I (Richard) recently corrected myself when talking to my young son. The exact wording escapes me now, but - given his age - it was probably something like: "Please throw less pieces of food on the floor ... oh, I mean, fewer pieces!" My natural inclination was to say "less", and of course, "less" would be universally understood. And, bonus, it uses one less (or one fewer?) syllable than "fewer". But as we all know, "fewer" is technically correct. And talking of being corrected, "less" to "fewer" was one aspect of my work that I remember being changed relatively often in my early days at the company. Fifteen years or so later, I'm so highly attuned to it that I can spot a fewer/less mistake a mile off!
Here's a reminder of the basic rule, which boils down to whether you're talking about countable or non-countable nouns:
Prescriptive grammar dictates that "fewer" should be used instead of "less" with nouns for countable objects and concepts. "Less" should be used only with a grammatically singular or non-countable noun.
So, "I have fewer slices of cake than my sister" but "I have less money than my sister".
The phrase "grammatically singular" is key here. Money, for example, is by definition countable but is regarded (or counts!) as an uncountable noun. "Fewer money" is impermissible even colloquially. And it doesn't even work if you specify further: Try "Everything in this store costs £10 or fewer" for size. It's a similar case for distances: See: "The pub was fewer than 5 miles from here". Because 1, 2, 3 and 4 miles away are not the only options, it could be any fraction of either of them, you have to use "less". One of the quirks of the rule is that if you can break down a countable item into its constituent parts, you need to use "less" rather than "fewer". And interestingly, there is no "fewer" equivalent if you're going in the opposite direction. My sister has more slices of cake than me and, irritatingly, she has more money than me too!
Maintaining this balancing act between prescriptive and descriptive grammar is something that all writers have to grapple with. But resisting our natural urge to streamline and make our language more efficient is sometimes something that we just have to do. Perhaps the supermarkets could have just said "Maximum 10 items" to quash the debate at the outset ...
We have no insight or helpful commentary to add, and are just following government guidelines and doing our best to ensure that everyone stays safe. As it says in our German email signature right now:
Das Coronavirus hat uns zwar aus dem Büro verbannt, doch dank Home Office sind wir weiter in gewohnter Weise und ohne Einschränkungen für Sie da.
Oh and the answer to the question in the title? Well, it probably depends on how many things you had to worry about in the first place. Two or more than two? It's a pedant's world out there, people! And, no, using the correct grammar did not deter the food throwing ...
In the mid-1970s, Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt came up with a method for providing a jolt to artists struggling with creative block. They called their invention Oblique Strategies. The strategies take the physical form of a deck of cards featuring simple but sometimes also cryptic instructions designed to help relieve creative block and provide inspiration. Perhaps their best-known application was in David Bowie's Berlin trilogy of albums. Some of the strategies are particular to the music industry (Imagine the music as a moving chain or caterpillar), but most are not. You will find some examples here. They even helped with the composition of this blog, specifically one of the more prosaic instructions: Take a break! Even after the research had been synthesised and some initial ideas jotted down, the writing process didn't exactly flow freely. But it did after a short break, which perhaps chimes with another of the strategies: Slow preparation, fast execution.
As translators, we write for a living, but are perhaps unique in the field in that we are never (or at least rarely) faced with a blank page that needs filling. By definition, we always have something to work from. It seems to make writing this blog doubly difficult. The process throws us out of our comfort zone and into the ominous realm of composing for our own audience. A common tip for aspiring writers is to simply get something down on paper and work from there. We find a similar thing applies to the blog. The first draft is painful and hard work, but once it's done, we have our ‘source text’ to refine and improve.
Of course, blank pages are not our everyday bread and butter. Working on something that has already been written is. And that would, on the face of it, seem like the ultimate restriction. But it is perhaps the restrictions placed upon us that can inspire and indeed call for our greatest moments of creativity. The one-word heading containing an untranslatable German pun. The sentence stretching half a page containing a maze of clauses and subclauses. We can assure you that translator's block is a very real phenomenon and that we all have our various tips and tricks for resolving it, some of which perhaps align in spirit to Eno and Schmidt's Oblique Strategies. My personal favourite is simply asking a colleague or other person for their opinion. The metaphorical pulling of the How would someone else do it? card. Use unqualified people or perhaps even Tape your mouth (reversing the instruction in this case). Some of the Oblique Strategies are eerily relevant: Make something implied more definite. Germans love a passive construction, and making the implicit subject of the sentence explicit can make all the difference in translation. Some are less relevant of course: Do the words need changing? Well, yes, otherwise we wouldn't be stuck :)
I think we translators all use something similar to the Oblique Strategies in our day-to-day work, often perhaps without really thinking about it. Whether it's switching the order of the sentence around, turning verbs into nouns or nouns into verbs, removing fluff and filler or adding a little something to make a sentence sing, the amount of creative energy that goes into our work can sometimes be quite surprising - and surprisingly exhausting!
Today, the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. We have made no secret of the fact that we have always wanted the UK to remain a full and active member of the European Union and to participate fully in its future development. However, we acknowledge the fact that Brexit is now going to happen and will adapt accordingly should circumstances require us to do so. Our sincere wish is that the negotiations between the UK and EU over the coming months and years result in the closest possible relationship.
Specifically, 11 o'clock tonight marks the beginning of what is known as the transition period. This will last until the end of the year, provided that Boris Johnson does not request an extension, which he has promised he will not do. During this period, EU law will continue to apply in the United Kingdom, and there will be no noticeable changes to most people’s lives or working situations. Of course, Brexit will be far from ‘done’, to borrow the key line from Johnson’s election campaign. There remain a raft of issues to be resolved and decisions to be taken, and the outcome of many, if not most, of these are still unclear. In short, we are still uncertain about the precise terms of the UK’s separation from its biggest and closest trading partner.
As a provider of services, we are very unlikely to be affected by the imposition of any tariffs in connection with a negotiated trade deal or even in a no-deal situation, which remains a possibility given the tight deadline for negotiations and the self-imposed strictures of Johnson’s government. We would therefore like to signal to our customers, freelancers and all members of the LingServe family that it is very much business as usual as far as we are concerned. Our objective is to continue providing the same high-quality service for companies and organisations in the German-speaking countries, and we currently see nothing on the horizon that will prevent us from doing so.
If you have any questions or concerns regarding Brexit or our services, please do not hesitate to get in touch.
On a more positive note, the LingServe team will be out this evening to celebrate Louisa’s tenth year with the company. A graduate of the University of Leeds, Louisa began working for the company in February 2010 after spending nine years as a translator and coordinator for SAP's inhouse translation department in Walldorf. It is something of a double celebration for us too, as we have now formally welcomed Jana back into the fold. Jana left LingServe in 2018 but continued to work for us on a freelance basis. However, she is now back permanently with the company and it feels like she never left at all!
This year's Christmas party for inhouse staff, freelancers and other members of the LingServe family was held on Friday, 13 December - a seemingly inauspicious date but one that didn't have any effect on our enjoyment of the evening. It also happened to be the day after the UK election, which certainly meant that no-one was left without a subject of conversation! Although given the circumstances and the now looming prospect of imminent Brexit, it actually came up far less than you might have expected. Clearly no-one wanted to spoil the party atmosphere.
Before the festivities commenced, our long-standing freelancer and financial guru Andrew gave a long-awaited demonstration of Dragon Naturally Speaking speech recognition software and how he uses it to increase productivity and reduce the physical wear and tear from typing. It was fascinating to see how accurate the software was, even when Andrew spoke quickly. The demo certainly gave us food for thought on how we might want to integrate dictation software into our translation processes in the future.
For the party itself, we brought in a number of traditional pub games. The centrepiece was a hired wooden skittles alley - once a common sight in Britain's pubs - which was complemented by darts, table football and something that can only be described as a throwing version of Torwandschiessen (and for those who are unfamiliar with this, see: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torwand)! During the pre-game meal, we were put into teams by pulling badges out of a hat. To mark the election, the team names were Corbyn, Swinson, Johnson and Farage. Each team played every other team at all of the games on a rotating basis, with Nigel keeping score and chivvying us along when necessary. It was a great way to make sure that everyone got to speak to everyone else, and we had so much fun that we actually forgot to take any photos this year! Winners on the evening were (in stark contrast to the actual election result) Team Corbyn.
On the subject of the Christmas party, we would like to announce that beginning this year, we will now be matching our spend on the party with a corresponding donation to charity, which this year will be Kindernothilfe e.V.
The LingServe office will be closed from Monday 23 December this year and will open again on Thursday 2 January. We hope you all have a fantastic Christmas and a great start to 2020, and we look forward to working with you all again in the new year.
Merry Christmas / Frohe Weihnachten
Election side note:
Before the Christmas do, I asked everybody who was coming for a prediction (fun or serious) as to the outcome of the election. Some were bleak, none were accurate as to the magnitude of the Tory victory, and the highlight was undoubtedly the response of Kate's three-year old son William to her explanation of why they were going to a parish hall on such a dark and rainy evening:
Kate: "All the grown-ups have to go and mark a piece of paper to choose who they want to run the country"
William: "I want to run the country!"
As Kate says, "You have to admit, he'd probably do a better job!"
And we'll leave our political commentary there.
The blog is a little off our usual beat this month, but is undoubtedly topical in the current political climate, as the United Kingdom heads towards an era-defining general election.
In the past year or so, I (Richard) have recommended the book Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker to various colleagues, after its message resonated with me. In some of these recommendation emails and conversations, I'm sure I used the word 'life-changing'. In fact, I know that I hesitated before advising someone to read the book because of the impact I thought it might have on them. To summarise its message, sleep is much more important than we ever thought, none of us (in the Western world at least) are getting enough of it, and that's having dramatic consequences on our health and wellbeing. Or, to put a more positive spin on it, there are few areas of life that can't be improved by getting more, or better quality, sleep.
However, as I recently discovered, a blog post has now gone viral that dismisses many of the book's claims as either pop or pseudo-science at best – or blatant misrepresentation of data or fact invention at worst. I read the blog (warning, it's a long one) https://guzey.com/books/why-we-sleep/ and felt deflated and more than a little perturbed afterwards. Had I been taken in by the book? Or were its findings actually more or less accurate and I'm now being taken in by this blog post? Does Walker believe so passionately in his cause that his book is based more on bias than hard science? Who has time to check all the facts and references in their non-fiction reading anyway?
But having said all that, I think I am now getting better sleep. So, is that a placebo effect or are Walker's findings and recommendations valid overall, but perhaps dressed up with suspect fact? You'll already notice that there are many more questions being asked in this post than answers provided, and of course our remit and your time and attention are restricted. The answer in this case is that I simply don't know. Let's just say that the ball is now firmly in Walker's court for a rebuttal of the post and it is eagerly awaited.
In our times of empty promises emblazoned on the side of buses, this plays into a wider concern about what we can and cannot believe. Is a lie or exaggeration of the truth in some cases acceptable if it serves a bigger goal? Given some of the spending pledges currently being bandied around by the major British parties, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was the only way to win an election! And if the UK had voted against Brexit because of overblown claims by the Remain campaigners back in 2016, would any of us here have complained? One thing is clear, it's getting harder and harder to discern truth from untruth (I will pointedly resist using the term 'fake news'). But perhaps it was ever thus. I remember reading a health book from the 1920s that recommended waking up and having a cigarette in bed if you were suffering from insomnia. Sleep well, dear reader, but please don't light up!