Culture and Sentence Length


Prismatic Prospects recently blogged about sentence length and I want to take it a step further. I talked with my renter, who translates between English, Italian, French, Spanish, and German, about it and he claimed that English speakers like short sentences, while continentals prefer long sentences.

Here’s a sentence from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time / Remembrances of Things Past, chosen almost at random:

It was one of those old townhouses, a few of which for all I know may still be found, in which the main courtyard was flanked — alluvial deposits washed there by the rising tide of democracy, perhaps, or a legacy from a more primitive time when the different trades were clustered around the overlord – by little shops and workrooms, a shoemaker’s, for instance, or a tailor’s, such as we see nestling between the buttresses of those cathedrals which the aesthetic zeal of the restorer has not swept clear of such accretions, and a porter who also did cobbling, kept hens, grew flowers – and, at the far end, in the main house, a “Countess” who, when she drove out in her old carriage and pair, flaunting on her hat a few nasturtiums which seemed to have escaped from the plot by the lodge (with, by the coachman’s side on the box, a footman who got down to leave cards at every aristocratic mansion in the neighborhood), dispensed smiles and little waves of the hand impartially to the porter’s children and to any portion of tenants who might happen to be passing and whom, in her disdainful affability and her egalitarian arrogance, she found indistinguishable from one another.

There are many such sentences in this book, which many people claim is the greatest novel ever written.

This sentence frustrated me because it didn’t let me slow down to think about anything in it. Perhaps the continental preference for long sentences results from a preference for style over content. Perhaps the reason for writing long sentences is to prevent the reader from thinking. The writer may wish the reader to bathe in the sounds and connotations of the words, as if they were poetry, rather than to be distracted by the details of what is said. I daresay you could throw out 9/10th of the words in this novel without losing any of the story or even the characters; what would be lost would be its scent and flavor.

Poetry, however, is extremely short rather than extremely long. I don’t respect Proust for being able to spend ten pages describing the feelings aroused in him by the name of an old estate. I respect the writer who can describe those feelings in one paragraph.

When translating Proust from French into English, should one chop the long sentences up into short ones in order to translate them into English cultural expectations, if doing so would be more likely to evoke feelings in English people similar to those that Proust wished to evoke in French people?

I have the strong impression that continentals don’t write muscular prose (highly-correlated with short sentences, though not always). Americans own muscular prose: Hemingway, Hammett, Chandler, Ian McEwan, Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, Don DeLillo, Elmore Leonard, Cormac McCarthy. Old English and Norse poetry have that oomph too, as do some of Borges’ stories about the Argentinian gauchos, and some African books. I’d think German could, but I haven’t read any like that. Asian literature, as far as I know, completely lacks it outside of Dragon Ball Z. But I probably wouldn’t know if it had it.

One theory of mine is that Continental literature was shaped so strongly by world wars one and two. The English-speaking world fought those wars on other people’s soil, and were not as traumatized by them. Continental literature, as a result, must accommodate a readership that is more bruised, more in need of comfort, less enamored of force and physicality.


One thought on “Culture and Sentence Length

  1. It’s interesting what you bring out about a novel’s “scent and flavor.” It’s what I appreciate about detailed literature: one doesn’t only get the bare facts about “what happens” in a book, but there’s a whole added experience when one delves into language, a mode of exploring through the human consciousness.

    Perhaps longer sentences don’t prevent a reader from thinking so much as they move the reader to think in a different way, to take in a story’s landscape differently. It can be like the difference between driving in the city in short spurts, due to all of the traffic lights (short sentences), and driving down the highway with fewer stops (long sentences.) In both cases, the passengers can still see and consider what’s outside of the car’s windows, but they may take in the scenery differently in the middle of the city as opposed to out on the road.

    A flawed analogy, I know, but I think it’s a fortunate reader who can appreciate both kinds of trips, like on city streets and highways, even as all readers are entitled to their personal reading preferences. I find it amazing to consider all that could be behind the differences in literature styles.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s