Consummate Composition Depends on Superb Sentences - Translation Skills Training

Consummate Composition Depends on Superb Sentences

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Great chefs became great by first eating great food.  Of course, there is more involved in becoming a chef than just eating.  Great chefs also must pay a lot of attention to what they eat.  They must think about what they are eating while they eat. This mental state is known as metacognition.  Great chefs, or great chefs in the making, analyze their food, consciously observing and classifying the flavors, aromas, appearance, textures, what foods go well with others and with which wines, and many other details.  Many people are sophisticated connaisseurs and recognize an excellent meal when placed before them.  They can describe and critique it, and may be good cooks at home.  However, if they are honest, they will have to hastily admit that they have not achieved the lofty distinction of being chefs.

Becoming an excellent at composing with words is no less arduous a process than becoming a great chef.  Just as aspiring chefs must consciously eat great food, aspiring writers must read much, read widely and do so with discrimination.  Many people compose with excellence and precision, yet still lack the artistic knack that would elevate their work above their peers and place them in the company of poets, playwrights and novelists.  Nevertheless, they may compose so well for the special needs of their profession that they qualify as excellent writers.

Not everything in print really qualifies as great writing, any more than anything that is cooked qualifies as gourmet food.  However, anything and everything in print potentially matters for specific types of writers who write for special purposes.  This observation is uniquely significant for those who aspire to become Analytic Linguists, because they need to have the precision and attention to detail possessed by great writers, as evidenced by a mastery of grammar, the mechanics of writing and an ample vocabulary.  At the same time, Analytic Linguists also must be able to understand and reproduce in written form the language and slang of criminal underworlds (note the use of the plural, since there are many varieties of such criminal associations, each with certain linguistic peculiarities).

Becoming adept at writing requires more than a good vocabulary and the ability to write grammatically correct sentences.  The sentence is the first major building block of any composition.  At the sentence level, the organization of thoughts takes place.  The organization of sentences and their relation to one another must create a trajectory that leads to the desired effect.  Edgar Allen Poe, the inventor of the short story, wrote a useful essay on the Unity of Effect, which every aspiring writer should read regularly.

As Poe’s essay says most eloquently, in the composition process, writers have to decide what to include in each sentence in order for their composition to make the desired impact on readers.  This process also requires knowing what to exclude so as to not take readers in an irrelevant direction.  Since the sentence is such an important building block, it is worth examining one masterful sentence at the opening of a story by the Nobel Prize winning Colombian writer, Gabriel García Márquez.  Márquez got his start as a writer through newpaper writing; note how he paints a picture with words:

“Estaba sentado en el escaño de madera bajo las hojas amarillas del parque solitario, contemplando los cisnes polvorientos con las dos manos apoyadas en el pomo de plata del bastón, y pensando en la muerte” (p. 3).

The skeleton of this sentence is simple and forms a frame: “Estaba sentado… pensando en la muerte.”  Note how it consists of the first and last words of the sentence which frame relevant and intriguing details about the protagonist and thus creating suspense.  Readers must ask themselves what the subject is actually doing as he is seated.  As a journalist, Márquez would have learned the importance of what is known in that profession as the hook – typically the first sentence that is crafted so that readers will continue reading.

We may now examine and analyze how Márquez inserts truly engaging information within what would otherwise be a boring sentence.

The details within this frame respond to the 5 Ws of journalism: who, what, when, where, and why – often adding a sixth question: how.  The answers to the questions who? and what? reveal the grammatical subject and its corresponding verb.  In this opening sentence, readers know from the masculine ending on the second word – “sentado” – that the subject is a man; from the first word, readers see the verb “estaba” – indicating a state or condition.

The question when? and where? also are answered together, cleverly sandwiching the answer to when? between two details about where the subject is: “en el escaño de madera / bajo las hojas amarillas / del parque solitario,” The inclusion of the wooden seat, the yellow leaves and empty park allow nature and the setting to present sensory clues that mirror and reinforce the fact that he is old.  It is worth noting in passing that some readers may recall that the color yellow is an esoteric fetish of Márquez with its allusions to gold, light, alchemy and transformation.

Next, the distributive power of the auxiliary verb “Estaba” at the beginning of the sentence allows Márquez to complete his verbal portrait with descriptive details that surely appeal to readers’ senses.  First, the phrase beginning with “contemplando…” is complemented by the “cisnes polvorientos” an odd tactile and visual detail, since swans spend their time in the water and are not likely to be dusty.  However, dust is associated, along with the fall season of yellow leaves, with dust and old age. The barrage of prepositional phrases that follow accumulate more circumstantial details: “con las manos apoyadas / en el pomo / de plata / del bastón,” that securely confirm his age, while yet keeping readers in suspense as to what he is really doing while sitting there, as introduced by the second and last phrase introduced by “Estaba” at the very beginning of this prodigious sentence: “y pensando en la muerte.”

Márquez’s success at evoking the literary world of magical realism, as well as portraying the characters, themes and plots he creates, depend in great measure on his ability to create not one, but thousands of such sentences.

Márquez pursued perfection in his craft and with passion.  In his introduction to the collection in which this sentence introduces the first of the twelve short stories, he offers what hopefully will inspire all who seek to write well.  Describing his state of mind as he worked to produce the final draft, he relates: “La escritura se me hizo entonces tan fluida que a ratos me sentía escribiendo por el puro placer de narrar, que es quizá el estado humano que más se parece a la levitación” (p. xiv).

Márquez, Gabriel García. “Buen viaje, señor presidente,” Doce cuentos peregrinos (New York: Vintage Español [Random House, Inc.], 1992).

© 2019, Translation Skills Training (TST).

Eric Vogt
Eric Vogt
Eric W. Vogt, Ph.D. is accredited by the American Translators Association and is a Subject Matter Expert Consultant for Translation Skills Training™ (TST). For full bio, see: or

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