Linearity in academic writing

Expectations and standards in the English-speaking world surrounding the proper way to wage an argument in an academic paper are far from universal – indeed, in German and English “rhetorical culture” differing expectations prevail in a variety of areas, not least with a view to the need for “linearity” in argumentational flow. In line with the principle that the author should “pity the reader,” English academic texts tend to construct arguments in a very linear, transparent fashion; the discussion moves from one point to the next in a highly deliberate manner, and even when the focus of discussion shifts, there is a pronounced effort to manufacture smooth transitions. In the German academic tradition, by contrast, far less emphasis is placed on linear argumentational flow. German academic papers frequently adopt highly indirect lines of argument that do not take the reader on a clear route from point A to B; rhetorical strategies exhibiting a high degree of “digressiveness” are common, and German papers may deliberately jump from close discussion of one point to another, leaving the logical connection between the two points merely implied, like clues in a mystery novel. Part and parcel with this digressiveness is the commonality of the “Exkurs” (excursus) – i.e. digressional exposition on a non-essential topic – a practice that has no real equivalent in present-day Anglo-American academic writing.

The core problem that results for the translator from this aspect of German academic writing is the tendency for German papers – when translated directly – to sometimes make a volatile, erratic impression in English, as if the author were incapable of delivering a focused argument. In extreme cases, the expositional sections of a German paper can have an extremely “scattershot” structure, with multiple short paragraphs of one to two lines addressing seemingly tangential points. Anglo-American peer reviewers invariably pounce on such weakness, interpreting them as symptomatic of an unstructured first draft. In rendering such judgement, however, the Anglo-American reader is almost certainly unaware of the culture-centric nature of his or her perceptions, which are rooted in consensual practice that is far from universal.

While we can exhort German natives to write more like Anglos, what damage do we potentially render to the German academic tradition?