A feel for language

by Holly Mickelson

Imagine you’re sitting in a concert hall, waiting to hear one of the world’s best orchestras. The conductor raises his baton, cues the musicians, and then it begins.

I find this idea of making “out of many – one” very intriguing. More than once, I’ve tried to pick out the sound of one specific cello, or follow the slow, rumbling build of a drum behind the other instruments, in an attempt to figure out how this works. I adore how the conductor teases the best from each instrument with an emphatic gesture, how he shapes the whole musical piece. I wish I could do that.

Did I mention that I’m not a musician?

I can’t read music. In fact, I can barely sing. But I do appreciate the intricacies of classical music – even pop music – and admire how my mood and emotions can be carried along or altered, just by the act of listening. There’s an art behind this process. I recognize that art – and, on a good day, I can even replicate it – with words.

Holly Mickelson

Languages have feelings too

Good writers can manipulate moods and emotions through word choice and syntax, and an understanding of who will be reading in the first place. After all, languages are living things in the same way music is: if words are produced without feeling, they transport no feeling but sadness.

This means a well written anything is far more than just words on the page. It fulfills its primary purpose by transmitting a message, but what makes that message effective is how the piece of writing shapes the language through vocabulary, tone and style so that it reaches its intended audience with the intended result.

(Admit it: when your boss sends around a four-page memo and each lengthy paragraph is a single sentence, do you read it at once and thoroughly, or add it to your to-do list? In most cases, the KISS approach – Keep It Simple Stupid – really does make sense for internal memos.)

Feel for language

Creating the feel

I start by setting limitations. Who am I writing for? What’s the occasion? Who will be reading it? Once I’ve established that, I can shape the rest to fit: What length is appropriate? How can I convey even complex ideas through the sort of language and vocabulary that are going to hold my reader’s attention? As you can imagine, marketing texts, financial reports and even blogs have very different needs.

Obviously, getting language right takes time. Half of what I write gets tossed out again, and that’s on a good day. The first draft is never good enough, and it pays to set a text aside between revisions. I am my own conductor – with a light hand and a good ear (and a little practice), words can become music.

I’m fortunate: I can write for a living, which means I get to do something I love every day. I don’t always get to write what I want though; sometimes I’m assigned a task, and it’s my job to establish the limits and intent and fulfill them to perfection.

Cue the music

I don’t just write – I also edit and translate. Working with someone else’s words can be difficult, especially when some aspect is left murky. In that case, I have to find the missing puzzle piece and put it in.

Translating requires an ear for music too, not to mention – yes, you guessed it – a feel for two languages. It’s true I don’t “hear” German quite as clearly as I hear English, but I recognize the melody behind the words. It’s a learning process. Different languages, even related ones, relay information differently. Sentence structure varies. Idioms don’t always translate, and cultural references … well, I’m sure you’ve experienced the same thing if you’ve got colleagues of different ages in your office. I was brought up in the ’70s; how old are the readers my translation aims to reach? Sometimes, references just get lost.

What all this means is that all writers and translators are actually a lot like that conductor I mentioned above – we listen carefully, and do our best to shape the work before us into a comprehensive, effective and musical whole

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