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Contrasting Styles of Writing: English vs. Spanish

There is interestingly enough a big difference between what's considered good writing in Spanish and English. V.S. Naipul winner of the 2001 Nobel prize for literature publish an article on writing. In it he emphasizes the use of short clear sentences and encourages the lack of adjectives and adverbs. Essentially he pushes the writer to abandon florid language and master spartan communication. This is a desired feature of English prose, where short clipped sentences are the norm and seamlessly flow into a paragraph. In English prose the paragraph is the unit the writer cares about the most.

This is not the case in Spanish where whole short stories (I'm thinking this was Gabriel Garcia Marquez but maybe it was Cortázar) are written in one sentence. Something so difficult to do in English that the expert translator could best manage to encapsulate the tale in two sentences. The florid language is what is considered good writing in Spanish but unfortunately this has lead to what I consider pretentious obfuscation for the sake of appearances.

Having been raised with both traditions, my English writing shows the elongated sentences of Spanish, and my Spanish writing a somewhat brutal brevity and directness.

This year has been rather productive for my blog, and I believe that this form of unedited (well, lightly edited) writing has improved my skills. But this year has also been brutal for my Spanish writing where two columns I submitted were rejected. And not on the matter of content but on matters of style (apparently not fluent enough in my mother-tongue).

In my very biased opinion, Puerto Rico has succumbed to the obfuscation of language for appearance's sake. I hear the affected tones not just in writing but also in speaking. Surely a mostly unconscious act now, complicated and rather unreadable writing has become the norm. Not that there is anything wrong with that per-se. But writing, when done well, is like a temporary mind-meld where for a few moments your thoughts and mine are shared. And this uncontrolled misappropriation of formal language has led to a diminished appreciation for content and clarity.

Last summer while working for the Census I attempted to read a book that my father holds in very high regard called "El hombre mediocre" or the mediocre man, by Jose Ingenieros.

After a punishing fifteen pages I gave up on "El hombre mediocre." I ended up having to look up words in the Spanish dictionary almost in every sentence. Here is the first sentence of "El hombre mediocre."

"Cuando pones la proa visionaria hacia una estrella y tiendes el ala hacia tal excelsitud inasible, afanoso de perfección y rebelde a la mediocridad, llevas en ti el resorte misterioso de un gran Ideal."

Which translates to roughly: "When you point the visionary bow (of a boat) toward a star and fix the wing to the untouchable sublimeness, determined to perfection and rebelling to mediocrity, you carry in you the mysterious spring of a great ideal."

Now this writing dates from the beginning of this century (1913). It comes from an older style of writing. One that feels anachronistic today, but has for some reason endured in pockets here and there. The problem with this writing is that it obscures its message. It is writing whose primary purpose is not communication but the aggrandizement of the author. Like the author unsure of his own knowledge decides to hide it behind prose. It wants desperately to be poetic, but it's not poetry.

When written like this language becomes un-skimmable. And while that has its benefits, the cost: the lack of clarity, is very high. I was unable to get at the content of a book like "el hombre mediocre" because the language got in its way.

I do not endorse V.S. Naipul's advice for short sentences, but neither do I like the entangled prose of yore. I think that prose must be honest. The military have a saying that communication should be "short, sweet and to the point." A fantastic rule of thumb, I think and it doesn't carry the prohibitions of V.S. Naipul's dictums. Writing is more than mere communication, of course, so these are not constraints on style, in my opinion, but guides to avoid dishonest expression.


  1. Do you know of any related articles, comparing Spanish and English language writing styles?

  2. Hi David,

    I don´t know how I came across this blog but I absolutely agree with your point here. I´m an ESOL teacher and a Spanish<>English translator as well though I teach more than I translate. My main frustration with translation from Spanish into English, especially the ones on psychology I currently working with, is the length of the sentences and the many comments inserted between brackets or dashes. It makes reading and decoding almost impossible at times!

  3. Interesting! I am an ESL teacher who does not speak Spanish, but I have been tasked with the job of creating materials to help support the critical thinking and writing skills of Hispanic students who have come through the American high school setting but still are not ready for college English. I found this blog very helpful. I would be interested in any other commentary that would enlighten my efforts!


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