Embedded brackets – differences between Dutch and English usage

January 7th, 2020 by dutchlink

English usage of embedded brackets – avant-garde, visual usage

The wording above is linguistically called ‘embedded brackets’, which are used in English entirely visually. Joy-Burrough-Boenisch in her excellent book, Righting English That’s Gone Dutch’, took the matter up with Jeremy Marshal of the Oxford Dictionary Word and Language Services, who described embedded brackets as follows:

“Embedded brackets within words are used mainly by avant-garde, postmodernist, or feminist writers who are trying to make some subtle point through wordplay…”

And what could be more avant-garde than love, in all its complicated and uncomplicated forms?

But before going off on a philosophical tangent, let’s ask ourselves: What does any of this has to do with translating Dutch?

Dutch usage of embedded brackets – to offer two diametrically-opposed alternatives in a space-saving manner

The answer is that the Dutch usage of embedded brackets is very common, but unlike usage in English, embedded brackets in Dutch is not for an avant-garde twist, rather to offer two alternatives that are diametrically opposed to each other.

The intention in Dutch of using embedded brackets is to save space, i.e. the two alternatives are not written out in full: one alternative is the word without the embedded part; the other alternative is the word with the embedded part.

When translating embedded brackets from Dutch to English, it is the translator’s job to write out the two alternatives out in full.

Dutch Explanation English
(brom)fietsen fietsen en bromfietsen bicycles and motorcycles
(inter)nationaale nationaal en internationaal national and international
(deel)project project en deelproject project and subproject

Dutch usage of normal brackets… another method of offering two diametrically-opposed alternatives in a space-saving manner

Another way in Dutch of saving space is to use normal brackets around a single word to indicate two alternatives. What happens is that one alternative is indicated by the word in brackets. The other alternative has to be worked out by the reader and has the diametrically-opposed meaning to the bracketed word.

This construction simply never appears in English. English writers never make their readers work so hard, and where two alternatives are given, they are always written out in full.

This can pose quite a challenge to a translator as the examples below illustrate:

Dutch Explanation Translation
(Online) seminars Seminars are offered in two ways – online and offline Seminars or webinars
(Inhouse) trainingen Training is offered in two ways – inhouse and at the customer’s premises. Inhouse or onsite training
(Internationaal) contracteren & structuren Contracting and structuring are offered in two ways – at international level and national level. Contracting & structuring (international and domestic)

English usage of brackets

The translation of the last example given above is worth looking at.

“Contracting & structuring (international and domestic)”

The use of brackets in this translation is acceptable – both alternatives are written out in full. The translation could have read:

“Contracting & structuring at international and national level”

Because this wording appeared in a leaflet, the translator shortened the phrase and used brackets. The test in English of whether brackets are being used correctly is to remove the bracketed information to see if the meaning is still clear. In this case it is. ‘Contracting & structuring’ stands on its own. Adding the words ‘international and domestic’ is correct usage of brackets – used when a writer wants to add information that will give greater detail to the information presented.

English and Dutch usage of embedded brackets – shorthand for the singular and plural (visual)

Finally, the only widely-seen usage in English of ‘embedded brackets’ (apart from the ‘avant-garde usage which is rarely seen) is to save space when indicating the singular and plural forms, for example:

“Please pay in your cheque(s) here.”


16 Responses to “Embedded brackets – differences between Dutch and English usage”

  1. Kari Koonin says:

    Great article, Elizabeth and Marion! Useful for both into-English translators and Dutch native speakers writing in English. For translators, it is so important not to translate punctuation such as these brackets blindly without thinking about the true meaning.

  2. Joy Burrough-Boenisch says:

    Indeed, a very nice piece. As it happens, at the upcoming SENSE conference in June, I’m giving a presentation on brackets and the ways they’re used in English, Dutch and Dunglish!

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