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The Myth of the Short Sentence in English-Language Literary Fiction

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

As an English Language and Literature major at Universidade de São Paulo, I took courses in Portuguese- and English-language literature. It became apparent that, by and large, Brazilians tend to write longer sentences than do authors writing in English. Portuguese words are longer, and some Brazilian writers seem to favor longer sentences in their work. When I translate literary works from Brazilian Portuguese to English, I keep that tendency in mind, as English-language readers are likely to expect shorter sentences. But do long sentences in Portuguese need to be cut shorter routinely in English translation? I have seen this done in some Portuguese-to-English literary translations, and I question the practice.

The Brazilian authors whose work I translate sometimes use particularly long sentences, including a few instances of the much maligned run-on sort. In the two novels by Marília Arnaud I have translated, however, only a few times did I decide to split very long sentences. In those cases, the sentences had run seven or so lines of text in the original, and I thought splitting them into shorter sentences would give the reader a mental break in which to make better sense of the content. In general, though, I hesitate to split sentences in my translations for two reasons: 1. long, syntactically complex sentences may be a significant marker of the author's style, which I aim to preserve, and 2. in the vast majority of cases, sentence length has been chosen for an aesthetic reason rather than conformity to a cultural tradition of excessively long sentences.

In an essay I wrote and Hopscotch Translation published in 2022, I mention sentence length briefly and am happy to take up the issue in more detail here. In that essay, I argue that Marília Arnaud uses sentence length to serve her stylistic and narrative purposes. I offer a passage from my translation of Arnaud's Suite of Silence in which the protagonist's memories of her childhood are described in a long, complex sentence. The extensive, uninterrupted list of collated images befits the dreamlike feel of her reminiscences:

"Every time I leave [my violin teacher], I feel a contentment that takes my breath away, as if the world with all its exorbitant things existed only outside her door and were meant just for me, and the most perfect music was the buzzing of people and cars in the streets, the singsong of cotton candy vendors, the clinking of a triangle announcing sweet crispy egg rolls, the coo-coo of pigeons in the squares, the expansive laughter of children in the parks, the song of cicadas hidden under the canopy of cassia trees, the croaking of egrets in the mantel-of-Mary-blue of the sky."

Here is a medium-length sentence, followed by a rather long sentence from Arnaud's most recent novel, The Secret Bird, also in my translation. The phrase "such creatures" the protagonist/narrator uses refers to people with a knack for attracting those who will adore them blindly.

"Fear was not the kind of feeling that usually took hold of me—except for the phobias of vipers and clowns I had had since childhood. Rather than fear, it was my inability to get close to such creatures, to look at them for even a second without being overcome by extreme repulsion, by bouts of nausea apt to send my body into a seizure, as if the tongues of vipers, thousands of them, were brushing against my skin, as if clowns were licking my insides."

The long sentence, which goes on for six lines in the original, immerses us in the protagonist's emotions. Rather than a mental break, as readers we need the continuous flow of images that come to the character's mind so we can sense them as much as make sense of them.

An author's choice of sentence length has a lot to do with what Stephen King, in his book On Writing, refers to as the "beat" of the writing "the writer hears in his/her own head." The rhythm of the prose, or cadence, is an important--perhaps the most important--element to capture in literary translation, as French- and Spanish-to-English translator Frank Wynne states in an interview with The Publishing Post, which I quote in my Translation Metaphors post.

In that post, I also mentioned my desire to stay true to the target language in my translation work. And as I said above, I do understand that in general authors writing in English tend to favor shorter sentences than do Brazilian writers (and writers from other cultures as well). Still, I believe the short sentence as the norm in English-language literary fiction, except in the cases of flash and micro fiction--is a myth. To demonstrate, I would like to share some examples of long-sentence use from my reading of works by two U.S. authors, whose talent and skill are widely recognized.

Here is an unusually long sentence, even for Michael Chabon, who uses long sentences liberally, from his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Warning: it contains a bit of a spoiler from the first part of the book. Josef is being smuggled out of his home country in a coffin, where he has been placed alongside a Golem.

"Inside the coffin, Josef lay insensible. He had fainted with an excruciating, at times almost pleasurable, slowness over a period of some eight or ten hours, as the rocking of the train, the lack of oxygen, the deficit of sleep and surfeit of nervous upset he had accumulated over the past week, the diminished circulation of his blood, and a strange, soporific emanation from the Golem itself that seemed connected to its high-summer, rank-river smell, all conspired to overcome the severe pain in his hips and back, the cramping of his leg and arm muscles, the near-impossibility of urination, the tingling, at times almost jolting, numbness of his legs and feet, the growling of his stomach, and the dread, wonder, and uncertainty of the voyage on which he had embarked."

Here, again, the purpose of this very long sentence is to make the reader feel what Josef was feeling. What better way to describe Josef's harrowing, claustrophobic experience than a sentence that seems interminable to the reader, as Josef's ordeal certainly must have seemed to him? To break this very long, complex sentence into shorter ones would have diluted the effect.

In her beautiful novel Matrix, Lauren Groff writes about nuns in twelfth-century England. Marie de France is the prioress, and Goda is a high-ranking nun at the abbey. Here Goda is translating for Marie's benefit what a local servant has said:

"The servant says something in a pious voice. Goda steps forward and translates into French. The villeiness had said she was walking back to her home and saw from the skies a great haggard, a wild lady-hawk, shooting down as though an arrow from the silver early moon and catching the merlin in its talons as it flew, it squeezed so tightly the little bird's blood scattered like wheat upon the ground and the servant followed the blood drops and found the prioress domina's falcon in the path and knew that the great prioress domina would want to know what had happened to it, for, though it is unnatural to keep the fierce devil birds of the forests as pets, the gentlefolk have strange desires and there is no profit in judging them, for all godly folk of the church know that the flow of judgment like the flow of water must go not up but down, alas. The villeiness smiles the gaps in her teeth at Marie."

Lauren Groff writes typically in short and medium-length sentences, with some long ones interspersed but rarely as long as in the passage above. This excerpt, then, is set apart from the rest of the narrative in quite a striking way. I believe this long string of clauses, joined by "ands" and comma splices, is meant to replicate speech--the words of the "villeiness" in the words of her translator. It may also be meant to reflect, in its "spitting-it-out" style, Goda's impatience with a woman who tries to ingratiate herself while also criticizing Marie and therefore doesn't deserve much of their time.

Again, we come upon the issue of cadence. Lauren Groff's prose in this book is often measured to match, to me, the slow, methodical rhythms of the abbey. The pace increases in more dramatic scenes, where there is faster action or more emotional turmoil, and sentences are often longer to convey these emotions. Occasionally we are faced with a passage like the one above, unusually long and with no period breaks, which is likely to give the reader a jolt that heightens attention to a change in rhythm, to a moment that is unlike the others that came before. So here, too, sentence length, especially if breaking the usual pattern of the narrative, serves an aesthetic purpose.

I admit my sample of English-language writers using long sentences is small. Without quoting from their work, I will mention two other authors writing in English who make use of long sentences often and extremely well. In James McBride's novels, we see brilliant long sentences bursting with energy, fast action, and rich character descriptions. In Tessa Hadley's short stories and novels, we see gorgeous descriptions of the characters' internal and external landscapes that go on for multiple lines, to this reader's delight. If you pay attention to sentence length in the works of fiction you have been reading, I am sure you will see variety there as well and occasionally some very long sentences--for good reason.

Gary Provost said it--demonstrated it--best:

And we are back to the idea that sentence length--sentence variety in particular--is key to the rhythm of the narrative. All the authors I have mentioned use longer or shorter sentences for a purpose that fits that moment in the story. As a literary translator, when tempted to split a sentence that runs very long in the original, I have taken into account prospective readers' expectations but ultimately have strived to stay true to what I perceive as the author's intention.

For longer excerpts of Suite of Silence and The Secret Bird in my translation, go to "pitches" on this website.

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