English English language Etymology Language Usage Writing

An article of faith

Q: I have a pet peeve about the italic notes under magazine pieces translated from other languages – e.g., “Translated from the Japanese by so-and-so.” Why is “the” necessary? Shouldn’t it simply say, “Translated from Japanese by so-and-so“?

A: In English, the definite article “the” has often been used in an idiomatic way with the names of things that wouldn’t appear to need an article (or could use the article “a” instead). For instance:

● With names of seasons, directions, and natural phenomena: “in the spring”; “I hate the cold”; “face the north,” and so on.

● With diseases: “she has the flu,” “have you had the measles?”

● With some titles: “the Reverend,” “the Honorable,” etc.

● With musical instruments: “she learned to play the piano,” “lessons on the viola.”

● And, finally, with the names of languages: “translated from the Spanish,” “borrowed from the German.”

Once the use of “the” with a language was much more prevalent than it is today. Here are two old citations from the Oxford English Dictionary: “Let not your studying the French make you neglect the English” (1760). And “Every advantage that … a complete knowledge of the Arabic could afford” (1795).

The OED says people use “the” with languages in an elliptical way – that is, they’re mentally deleting part of a longer phrase. Examples: “translated from the Spanish [version]” … or “from the [original] German” or “from the Japanese [language].”

At any rate, it’s not a mistake. It’s just a custom. Some people (and publications) adopt it and some don’t. And readers just accept this idiomatic “the” as, let’s say, an article of faith.

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