017 Word order problems – theme and rheme

See also 058 Functional sentence perspective

Members of the Prague Linguistic Circle made a special study of theme/rheme problems, i.e. issues involving the ordering of `that which is talked about‘ and `the statement that is made about it‘. Such ‚topics‘ and ‚comments‘ can be of great importance to the translator from Czech because a) the order in which information is given can be one of the primary elements of a text to be conveyed and b) even if it isn’t, failure to create a well-integrated information-order structure, whether following the original or not, can be the reason your grammatically sound text still looks somehow diffuse and unfocused.

Vilém Mathesius , commented that „English differs from Czech in being so little susceptible to the requirements of Functional Sentence Perspective (FSP) as to frequently disregard them altogether.“ and „In English, the lack of a differentiated morphemic system in many areas places heavy constraints on word-order patterns. In Czech, with its richer morphemic systems, word order can follow FSP much more faithfully“. That is, in Czech the newly introduced information can always go at the end of the sentence whether as subject, object or whatever, whereas English is supposedly constrained by its hidebound subject-object word-order.

Now few English speakers will have stopped mid-sentence to bemoan this lack, perhaps because a) English has several syntactic devices (described below) for putting information to the end of a sentence (for whatever reason – whether because it is new or to link it to its conjunction; b) new information does not have to go to the end of the sentence in English because c) (my own pet theory) English takes a lot more advantage of intonation to express what is theme and what is rheme than does Czech with its comparative monotone, and this can be expressed in English writing by means of punctuation, (which compared with the strict rules of Czech punctuation is positively freestyle) or in some cases even by italic and bold type faces.

This issue crops up a lot in the problem of fitting a word into a position immediately before the conjunctions „who“ or „which“ (see Reformulation):

V soutěži družstev zvitězili Rusové, kteří měli ve všech šesti kategoriích po dvou závodníciíh.
The winners of the team event were the Russians, who had two competitors in each of the six categories.

Na činnost PT, a.s. má dopad rovněž rada faktorů, které lze jen těžko ovlivnit.
PT activity is under the combined influence of several factors, which can only be controlled with difficulty.

Below are several other strategies to be considered when faced with word-order problems.

The most obvious choice. As Mathesius points out, the passive is used a lot more in English than in Czech.

Janu navštivil Petr
Jane was visited by Peter

(In Czech, by the way, the passive is sometimes used
1) where the active would confuse subject and object because of identical gender.
Cinovec doprovází wolfram
Cinovec je doprovázen wolframem
So in such cases, the English translation need hardly follow suit
2) Where one subject undergoes a number of actions:
Hoch, který po autu hodil kamenem, byl chycen majitelem auta, vláčen na policii, vyslýchán, odveden strážníkem do školy a pak břecící odevzdán rodičům
In Czech, use of the passive can be journalistic or indicative of higher style, which themselves have to be accounted for).

The English indefinite article, introducing a new item of information, can often by rendered in Czech by final position in the sentence:

Do místnosti vstoupila dívka
A girl entered the room

Dívka vstoupila do mistnosti
The girl entered the room

New information can be emphasised in English by fronting it in a cleft sentence. In Czech the rheme goes to the end.

Tom včera spravil Janin psací stroj v kanceláři
It was at the office that Tom repaired Jane’s typewriter yesterday

Tom včera spravil Janin psací stroj šroubovákem

It was with a screwdriver that Tom repaired Jane’s typewriter

Or by fronting it in a pseudo-cleft sentence
Pozoruhodné bylo, že to přiznala
What was remarkable was her admitting it

Firbas also lists a device he calls the „possessive passive“ using the verb „to have“ :

He always has crowds attending his concertsNa jeho koncerty vždycky chodí davy lidi
And the „perceptive passive“ using the verb „to find“:
„Upon examination of these, I found a certain boldness of temper growing in me.“


Mezi zákazníky firmy X je např. Y, většina energetických podniků i armáda.
X’s customers include Y, the majority of power utilities and the army. 

Vzniknout can be rendered with a similar shift in perspective.

Česká republika vznikla v roce 1993.

The Czech Republic was established in 1993.

Tento postup vychází z nasledujicí filosofie:
This approach is based on the philosphy that

Nájemce se zavazuje používat předmět nájmu tak, aby pronajimateli nevznikla žádná škoda
The lessee undertakes to use the subject of lease in such a way as not to cause any damage to the lessor

Introductory prepositional clauses can often be recast:

V dohodnuté částce je obsazeno…
The agreed amount comprises…

V kapitole 8 se hovoří o…
Chapter 8 discusses…

Na obr 4 je schematicky znázorněn…
Figure 4 shows…

V tabulce VII jsou uvedeny…

Table VII gives…

Autor ve své stati podrobuje analýze tři překladové soubory, jež vytvářejí jádro překladatelského díla Vítězslava Nezvala.                                                                                                     This article analyses three sets of translations that form the core of Vítězslav Nezval‚s translation work.

Converse verbs can be a very useful way of overcoming word-order problems. Shifts in perspective involving buy/sell, lend/borrow belong/own etc can be used to get a word to the end of a sentence for reasons of thematic structure.
emisním měřenením bylo zjištěno, že
measurements of emissions indicated that

„See“ and „witness“ can play a useful role to express došlo k and the like:

Na přelomu 40. a 50. let 20. století prošla hlubokou transformací i česká literární kultura.                                                                                                                    The turn of the 1950s saw a profound change in Czech literary culture.
V roce 2009 došlo ke sloučení těchto samostatných týmů do jednoho pracoviště,
2009 saw the merger of these separate teams in a single department.

If such departures from the original text make you nervous about losing sight of terra firma, you can always check your position with a truth-conditional approach to the problem. Put your converse translation through the following analysis:
Example: Tento obchod patri memu bratrovi – [B] My brother owns this shop
1. Ask yourself if there is any conceivable set of circumstances where one utterance is true while the other is false, i.e. this shop belongs to my brother but my brother does not own this shop.
2. Now ask yourself, does any such imagined situation a) stand in its own right or b) does it need an extra element to be made explicit, (i.e this shop „should“ belong to my brother) for it to be meaningful.
3. If b) then the converse view is valid and in most cases this translation should be good.


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