Over-egging the consistency pudding OR In praise of inconsistency

Brian Mossop in his coursebook Revising and Editing for Translators (in the Translation Practices Explained coursebook series) devotes chapter 7 to the topic “Checking for Consistency”. That seems fair enough, and not at all unexpected. But if you look more closely, you see that section 7.3 is called: “Over-consistency”. This I found intriguing.

Brian Mossop in his coursebook Revising and Editing for Translators (in the Translation Practices Explained coursebook series) devotes chapter 7 to the topic “Checking for Consistency”. That seems fair enough, and not at all unexpected. But if you look more closely, you see that section 7.3 is called: “Over-consistency”. This I found intriguing.

Typically, when the term “consistency” comes up in a translation context it is because a reviewer or a client laments the lack of it in a project that’s been delivered. Inconsistency is the ultimate sin, and consistency totally non-negotiable.

“Over-consistency” on the other hand is not a concept I have come across before – ever! But here we have it, on p. 89: “… it is also possible to be overly consistent”. Mossop introduces this with a quote from the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson: “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. We are told that this was meant to be a criticism of consistency of opinion (rather than writing) in view of the fact that there is no virtue in sticking with the same view just for the sake of it if you have actually changed your mind. But it makes a lot of sense in the context of translation and revision to apply it to writing and translation, and the revision thereof.

Mossop says that many editors and reviewers go to great length to impose consistency, and in my experience this is certainly true of reviewers, whether inhouse or external. Clearly, consistency is very high up on the scale of what is desirable in a translation. No wonder therefore that it is cited as one of the principal benefits of CAT tools. It is also and important item in style-guides.

Consistency has become such a keyword in the translation universe that it’s never really questioned. “Over-consistency” may therefore seem a very alien, bewildering concept. How can we be over-consistent? “Of course, everything needs to be consistent!”, you might say.

Everything? And consistent with what – within itself, with other, similar documents, with an entire website, within an industry …? One domain that springs to mind where consistency is paramount, is anything legal. If you have an employment contract that alternates between “you”, “the employee”, “the worker”, “the person employed”, “the subcontractor” I think you would be confused, and would probably ask for clarification. I guess we all agree that for a legal document, yes, we want consistency, not just in terms of individual terms, but also phrases and style.

Consistency is clearly also necessary when translating a software manual, where you are referring to menu items and buttons on the user interface. No-one likes to be told to click on the “Magnify” button when in fact it is called “Zoom In”.

But is consistency necessary or desirable in other contexts? In some short-lived informational piece – why? Why not introduce some variation? After all, synonyms have a place in language, and we should make use of them. Every language has them, so we can assume that they eixst for a good reason. As we know, languages are rather efficient getting rid of redundant features, and synonyms abound.

They are in fact part of a good writing style, even if some authors of user manuals seem to ignore that and opt for constant repetition instead. “Thank you for choosing our XX tool. The XX tool will help you to work more efficiently. After unpacking the XX tool, use the XX tool to: …”. You know what I mean.

It is true that for a translator it is so much easier if key terms are used consistently. Think of semantic fields such as related verbs like confirm-verify-validate-authenticate, check-investigate-examine, or nouns like machine-device-appliance-apparatus, etc. You’ve probably been confronted in software manuals by screen elements which are arbitrarily called box, field, zone, window or area. That can be very annoying. As a translator, it gives you the problem of deciding whether to slavishly follow the source and use a different translation for each of these, even though they are referring to the same thing of whether to take a unilateral decision and use just one term.

In some cases, however, using a synonym can be really helpful for the reader, especially when new concepts are introduced. For example, if as a tourist you encounter a text on rupestrian churches in the South of Italy, you may not be familiar with that word, and so an explanatory synonym (“these cave dwellings …” or “these houses hewn into rocks”) might come as a great relief, and save you the trouble of looking for a definition on the internet.

In the context of my day-to-day translation work, I am very often confronted with the question of consistency, whatever the subject matter and text type. Take Purina pet food content. Should I consistently use the term “cat”, or perhaps vary it a little by introducing “your four-legged friend”, or “your companion”, “your feline”, “your furball”, “moggy” etc.? More problematic even are the terms used for diseases: cystitis or inflammation of the urinary tract? Gastritis or inflammation of the stomach? Gingivitis or inflammation of the gums? Hypertension or high blood pressure? And is it legitimate to use them both? Or take training courses for sales people. Is it okay to use “churn rate”, “customer churn” and “rate of attrition” alternatively, or is it best to stick with one of these at the exclusion of all others?

In his chapter on consistency, Mossop also has a section called “Pre-arranging consistency”, and this is basically about agreeing in advance (between translator and reviewer, or author and editor) about the features that must be consistent. He mentions terminology here, but I am sure would include also stylistic features such as formal vs. informal form of address, casual or formal tone, etc.

The main reason for using synonyms and related keywords in website content, articles, white papers or blogs is that they will make your text much easier and more pleasant to read. If you keep using the same word over and over again, your readers will most likely stop reading and leave your webpage or blog long before getting to the end. You’ll lose your audience. Variation in writing is necessary to avoid boredom and to keep readers interested.

And this inevitably brings us to SEO and Google rankings. By now, most people who are concerned with these are aware that pages will get better ranking if you don’t just use the best keywords, but also their synonyms. Variation makes your text more appealing and digestible for your readers. It will flow better and read more naturally. That way your audience will stay with you. Google has come a long way; it’s become quite discerning and now understands synonyms and closely related phrases. It is therefore a good idea to use “trainers”, “training shoes”, “sneakers”, “running shoes”, etc. and get away from just always going with “sneakers”.

The new rule is not to “stuff” your texts full of the same keywords. In fact, keyword stuffing is totally “out” – and Google will penalize you for it. What you are encouraged to do is use your keywords and your synonyms alternately throughout your webpage. That way, you are serving up engaging, readable texts that surfers will read to the end, without yawning. The lesson to take away therefore is that over-consistency can be a thoroughly bad thing.

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