Axe the concept noun: demonstration by William Zinsser

I’m halfway through On Writing Well by William Zinsser. On page 76, Zinsser gives a perfect explanation of why I dislike the word dispositif; this is French for device, plan, machine, mechanism, or even worse, system.

Dead sentences

Zinsser provides us with three sentences which contain concept nouns as eerie as dispositif. These examples sound like some of my source texts:

a) The common reaction is incredulous laughter.

b) Bemused cynicism isn’t the only response to the old system.

c) The current campus hostility is a symptom of the change.

Living sentences

Zinsser rewrites them as:

a) Most people just laugh with disbelief.

b) Some people respond to the old system by turning cynical; others say…

c) It’s easy to notice the change—you can see how angry all the students are.

He inserted human beings in there. I believe a good translator would have done the same. The reader now has something to hang on to, to visualize. Zinsser says, “Get people doing things.”

I try. I attempt to ground the reader instead of dishing out the English equivalent of the abstract concept.

Whenever I come across dispositif I ask for its actual meaning. Last time, dispositif was an Excel spreadsheet…

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6 responses to “Axe the concept noun: demonstration by William Zinsser

  1. Nice article, Catherine. “Dispositif” is also one of my most hated words.

  2. Great post. I love the Excel spreadsheet!

  3. As a matter of fact, I’ve come across a few instances of “dispositif” today. SO far, I’ve used “mechanism”, “procedure” and “arrangements”. Other potential candidates, depending on the context, could be “system” and “facilities”. I have yet to use “Excel spreadsheet”, though :-)

    Happy Christmas!

  4. Please keep me posted. Although I do not translate from or to French, I do so from English to Portuguese (Brazilian Portuguese, which is very different from Portugal’s Portuguese) and vice versa.

  5. Pingback: Translating a website? 6 ways to make it more readable | Catherine Translates

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