Ampersand graphicI wrote a couple of posts, back in August, about the Oxford comma (Oxford commas (1), The Oxford Comma dilemma: a solution? and Oxford commas (2): Live dangerously – take our poll!).

This post too is about “list” sentences containing commas. It’s also about a way of spotting when an Italian-to-English translator is working on automatic pilot (not a good work mode!).

In sentences containing lists of items separated by commas, many Italian writers omit the “e” (and) before the last item. Translators working on autopilot often simply tranpose the sentence structure and omit the “and” in their English translation. In my book this is a translation sin – venial, perhaps, and of omission rather than commission, but a sin nonetheless.

It’s a mistake because it confounds readers’ expectations. Anything that puzzles the reader of the translated text, or brings them up short – even for just a second, even if they can’t put their finger on just what the problem is – interferes with their smooth reading and understanding of the text. That makes for bad translating.

In this case, English-speaking users reading a “list” sentence expect to see the word “and” before the last item. It acts as a signal that the list, and the sentence, are about to end. So if the sentence comes to a full stop without that “and”, they’re a wee bit taken aback.

Of course, this rule, like others, can be broken to good effect. But to break a rule well, you need to understand it in the first place. In English, you can omit that “and” if you want to imply that the list is not complete and could go on. For example.

Italian:

“la natura della minaccia è […] rappresentata da una rete di fattori di instabilità potenzialmente interconnessi: terrorismo, narcotraffico, tratta di persone, criminalità organizzata, proliferazione nucleare”.

English:

“The threat […] consists of a network of potentially interconnected factors of instability: terrorism, drug trafficking, people trafficking, organised crime, nuclear proliferation”.

The implication here is that humanity faces other threats too, but those mentioned are quite enough to be going on with, thank you.

So yes, you can break the “and” rule, if you know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. But not just because you’re working on automatic pilot.

Question for Italian readers: is there a grammar or style rule in Italian governing the use (or non-use) of “e” before the last item of a list? Comments and explanations very welcome!

Ampersand graphic courtesy of Steven Bonner, whose work recently appeared in Ben Zimmer’s On Language column in the New York Times – so I’m very chuffed that he’s letting me use one of his designs too!

By Marian Dougan


4 Responses to “A translation sin of omission”  

  1. 1 Gregory Harbin

    I’m curious: is this omission of ‘e’ not an error in Italian as well? If one were to translate from English into Italian, should he leave off the ‘e’ at the end of the translated list?

  2. 2 wordstogoodeffect

    I’m curious too. I’m hoping that somebody more authoritative than me in Italian grammar will enlighten us in the comments. I find both versions (ie with and without the “e”) in the Italian texts I translate.

  3. 3 Laura

    That’s very interesting! I must confess I’ve never given much thought to this topic,and I’m not an expert, but after actually reflecting a bit on it, I’d say I’ve never heard of such a rule but generally speaking a list without the “e” at the end does sound to me as it could go on, while the “e” at the end sounds more exhaustive. But I’m planning to do a bit of in-depth research about this and let you know, at this point I’m curious too!

  4. 4 wordstogoodeffect

    Thanks, Laura. Look forward to seeing the results of your research! I’ll try to dig out some examples from texts I’ve translated.

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