Parenthetical inserts

In this post, I would like to discuss a crucial point of difference between English and German parenthesis usage that has been a source of error in thousands of translations. Incredibly, this incongruity between German and English is almost never handled correctly by translators, even skilled ones; I have literally never seen a capable translation at a website, museum exhibit, or elsewhere that fails to stumble when confronting this issue.

In German, one use of parentheses is to indicate dual states – that is, to denote two discrete but mutually applicable states or conditions. Let me provide a few examples, using direct translations from the German: “Our paper estimates cost trends for (fossil) fuels.” This sentence means to say: “Our paper estimates cost trends, for both fossil and non-fossil fuels.” Here is another example: “In coming years, German will expand its (smart) grid infrastructure.” This sentence means to say: “German will expand its grid infrastructure in the coming years; some of this expansion will take the form of smart grids.”

In English, by contrast, the parentheses are normally used in this manner indicate an additional aspect that is “technically” or “incidentally” true. Furthermore, English parentheses are never used to indicate dual states (except in some limited domains influenced by rote translations from the German – that is, by Germanized English – such as philosophy). A native English speaker, for example, would understand the second sentence to mean: “In the coming years, German will expand its grid infrastructure; technically speaking, all of this infrastructure expansion will take the form of smart grids.” This is a drastically different meaning from that intended by the original German. Indeed, the direct rendering of the German parentheses will almost always yield a decidedly incorrect translation. And yet this error is made again and again – in fact, translators almost never fail to commit it – as to resolve it involves not only recognizing the problem (which is difficult) but also interpreting the text correctly (another difficult feat) and editorializing (which most translators – a generally timid species – are loath to do).

To further illustrate this point, here is good example of natural English parenthesis usage: “Uber Spinning Out of Control: Employees Eyeing Exits as Press (Finally) Starts to Question Business Model.” The information in parentheses is a supplemental aspect of the verb “starts”; it does not attempt to describe two equally valid states.

The moral of the story? Arriving at a correct and readable translation not only requires an extremely good understanding of German and English, but also an ability and willingness to interpret the source material and engage in editorial intervention.

Perfection up close

A few weeks ago I visited the BMW Museum in Munich, eager to “experience perfection up close”, as the website advertises. The museum and adjoining buildings are certainly impressive to behold: after strolling through BMW Welt, a vaulting exhibition space that houses the latest vehicle models, we traversed a narrow concrete bridge to the BMW Museum, an undulating dome of polished steel and glass. BMW clearly spared little expense on this elaborate building complex, which cost a total of 700 million euros to construct. Moving through the museum’s futuristic spaces, I was thus somewhat surprised to notice a few grammatical issues in the English language placards adorning the exhibits. As I began to pay closer attention to the English descriptions and compare them to the German versions, I ultimately noted dozens of problems, from minor infelicities to more serious errors, including wholly incorrect mistranslations. While most of the English used in the permanent exhibition was decent, the temporary exhibit on e-mobility was particularly rife with error.

It was a disconcerting experience, and not just because it tarnished my impression of the BMW brand. More specifically, the slipshod English was a vivid reminder of the structural factors that assure the vast majority of English language translations in the German speaking world are mediocre and would be classified as stilted or incoherent by native speakers. Indeed, if BMW, a company that spends millions of dollars on marketing to cultivate the impression of quality, is unable to produce good English copy for their museum, how will less richly endowed organizations fare in their effort to convey a professional image abroad?

In the translation industry, both customers and suppliers are subject to incentives that encourage poor translations: high levels of competition, in part due to improved machine translation, have been exerting a downward pressure on prices, such that even big industry names now offer bargain basement rates; at the same time, German customers rarely understand that time-consuming editorial adjustments and judicious adaptation are required to generate a professional outcome in English, and, unable to accurately assess the quality of English writing delivered by translation providers, tend to prefer “direct” translations that seem faithful in a superficial way but are actually quite stilted. Indeed, many German customers place an extreme emphasis on fidelity and are quick to berate translators who attempt to distill meaning and produce a professional piece of writing through adaptation. Accordingly, translators often have a clear incentive to overlook problems and offer rote translations that are stylistically weak, as this spares them the extra effort of deconstructing the text and addressing particularly intractable problems.

A visit to the museum website only reaffirmed the poor impression I received while in Munich. Here are just a few of the problems I noticed:

(1) Basic spelling errors: “staches of tires and curbes”

BMW_1

(2) “its” autocorrected to “ist”:

BMW_2

(3) Verb tense: the simple past, not past perfect, is necessary here

BMW_3

(4) Poor word choice: “is 5000m2 big” is slipshod phrasing

BMW_4

(5) Grammatically incorrect participles (correct alternative: “Whether you visit our bistro, cafe, or restaurant, take a seat…”)

BMW_5

(6) Clumsy direct translation: the first sentence is awkward stylistically. “On our exhibition space” is poor. “Computer” needs to be lower case. The heading “BMW Individual” makes no sense.

BMW_7

To help ward off depression on the part of the reader I will end this post with a couple images of my beautiful e30 325is, which I owned from 1997 to 2018. Unlike the BMW Museum, that car was perfection up close.

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car5

The English comma

Translation sheds a unique light on your native tongue. Since working as a translator I have developed a dramatically new appreciation for proper comma placement in English, for in contrast to the fixed comma placement rules of German, there are a variety of contexts in which inserting a comma in English is a matter of taste and personal preference, rather than a grammatical necessity. While English native speakers intuitively understand that the comma can be optional depending on the context, this insight often escapes German natives, who can quickly become uncertain when attempting to write in English or review English language texts, for a highly developed sense of style is prerequisite for the skillful placement of the English comma, rather than knowledge of a formalized set of rules (or “normative order”, as the Germans might say). I had given little thought to this point of difference between German and English until an old customer of mine complained about inconsistency in my translations when it came to sentences that opened with subordinate clauses like “As part of their activities, the researchers […]” or “Within the department, the researchers […].” Of course, in both of these instances the comma is optional and its use in any one case depends in part on the sentence that came previously and the words that follow – that is, on style, and on the proper and natural rhythms of a good English sentence. Of course, English speakers lack a quasi-governmental authority like the “Council for German Orthography” that renders sweeping and binding judgments about the proper usage of the language; I assume the lack of a firm consensus in the English-speaking world on a variety of usage issues strikes many Germans as characteristic of the unsystematic and haphazard nature of the Anglo mindset when it comes to organizational matters. The Germans have a point. Structure is a source of strength. And yet too much order becomes its own weakness, much like a tree branch which, unable to bend in the wind, snaps. How much of German history could be fruitfully interpreted through this lens?

Sentence construction strategies

Why is writing well in English so difficult? Why do so many Germans with an excellent command of English still struggle to produce stylistically smooth prose? Lack of familiarity with English vocabulary and grammar is usually not the issue. The far more typical problem is insufficient mastery of good sentence structuring techniques. Indeed, in my experience, writing errors committed by German natives tend to stem from sentence construction strategies (viz. Satzbaustrategien) that are specific to German grammar and which do not work well in English. This could be a particular weakness for Germans because the pitfalls that abound in this regard cannot be easily subsumed into systematic categories that are amenable to formalized learning; the problems in this area are diffuse, confusing, and often difficult to explain. In this blog post I would nevertheless like to make a first attempt toward systematizing one usage issue typical of this “problem nexus.”

In German writing the preposition “mit” (“with”) is often deployed to create prepositional phrases that, when translated directly, are exceedingly stilted in English. Let us turn to an example:

Driverless vehicles are expected to become an important supplement to fixed-route public transit with a positive effect on vehicle demand.

Note the absence of a verb after “with.” In a great variety of circumstances German accommodates the stacking of nouns in prepositional phrases in ways that are simply not considered grammatical in English. In English, a new verb is needed to clarify the relationship between the elements of the sentence. My edited version reads:

Driverless vehicles are expected to become an important supplement to fixed-route public transit, and will thus have a positive effect on vehicle demand.

Let us look at another example. This one is taken from Deutsche Bank’s English website:

We adopted a comprehensive energy and climate strategy in 2007 with a commitment to effective environment action in all our activities.

The “with” prepositional phrase is used to introduce a “noun stack” of supplemental information in a manner that is clumsy in English. In this case, a good solution is to create a restrictive clause that has its own verb:

We adopted a comprehensive energy and climate strategy in 2017 that commits us to effective environmental action in all of our activities.

Let us turn to one last example:

The study explores the policy environment for investment in renewables, with a special consideration of their effects in cross-border renewables cooperation.

While most Germans would find no issue with this sentence, for English natives, it is clearly deficient. Another very good solution for the “mit noun stack” is to create a new independent clause that starts with “while” and a gerund:

The study explores the policy environment for investment in renewables while giving special consideration to their effects on cross-border renewables cooperation.

My hope with this blog entry is to sensitize German natives to one specific type of error they often commit when writing in English: namely, creating prepositional phrases that rely on “with” to introduce unreadable noun stacks that lack a verb. This is a sentence structuring technique that works well in German, but usually fails dramatically in English. In almost all cases, the best solution is to expand the prepositional phrase by turning it into a subordinate clause that contains a verb.

Knowledge transfer cont’d

I previously wrote here about the lack of an English equivalent for the common German term Wissenstransfer. While “knowledge transfer” is established in Anglophone microeconomics, it does not have the broad meaning of Wissenstransfer, which is used in German to designate various phenomena, from the sharing of academic insights with policymakers to the international spread of philosophical thought. The lack of a direct equivalent for Wissenstransfer is a translation problem of such severity that non-native speakers of English seem to be in a state of denial, as evidenced by edits recently made to the English Wikipedia entry for “knowledge transfer,” where the term is normally defined as a concept in “organizational theory” that relates to “transferring knowledge from one part of the organization to another.” At the end of the first paragraph, an unknown editor has contributed the following clarification: “The term has also been applied to the transfer of knowledge being transferred [sic] at the international level.” Edits to Wikipedia articles made by non-native speakers are always a joy, particularly when atrocious grammar is paired with errors of content. At the end of this sentence, we find two footnotes to substantiate the assertion: The first is a reference to an article published in the Economic Times of India that was auto-generated (!) based on a news feed from somewhere else (note that “knowledge transfer” appears nowhere in the article aside from the title, where it is used as part of the larger compound “scientific knowledge transfer”). The second is a reference to an EU document produced as part of the Innovation Union, which means German natives were maybe (just maybe!) involved in its authorship.

In any event, Lord Grey’s successful effort to squelch the pro-German factions in British Parliament who advocated remaining neutral in 1914 means we now live in a world of Anglophone hegemony, a world in which a Professor of Political Science at Yale University, when asked by your humble author to define “knowledge transfer,” can unabashedly respond, “What in the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Framework conditions

Translating the extremely common German term “Rahmenbedingungen” into clear English is fraught with difficulty. The standard and widely accepted translation – “framework conditions” – suffers from one crucial problem: it is not English. The New York Times, for example, has only used “framework conditions” five times (!) in its entire publication history, in all instances to refer to statements made by a German politician or executive. Considering how useful and ubiquitous the term is in German, it surprises me there is a lack of a sound equivalent in English and that the various translations offered at LEO and other dictionaries are so deficient. While there might be good reason to stick to “framework conditions” in some instances – for example, if you are translating a legal document from the European Commission – this translation will generally strike English native speakers as both murky and odd. Accordingly, it is not a viable solution if you are seeking to create an English text that is both clear and professional. “Rahmenbedingungen” can have a few different meanings based on the specific context, but usually it refers to the business and regulatory environment in which a company or economic actor is operating. When German politicians talk about the need to “create good framework conditions” for X, they mean we should pass laws and policies in order to ensure X has a business, tax and regulatory environment in which it can thrive. In a great many cases, the intended meaning is that government subsidy programs should be enacted or reformed to benefit X. All of this is completely unclear when the English reader is confronted with the puzzling assertion about the need for “good framework conditions”, or simply a “good framework” (Rahmen). The latter assertion is particularly opaque because it seems to refer to abstract ideas about how something is perceived (viz. interpretive frameworks). Considering the intended meaning of the German and the inadequacy of established translations, I advocate a context-based descriptive equivalent rather than a misleading standalone noun (such as “basic conditions”, which obfuscates more than it clarifies). Often, the best solution is to refer to the need for good “regulations”, “tax policy” or “business conditions” (or some combination thereof) in the economic subsector in question. Explicit reference to government subsidy or regional development programs might also be expedient. It all depends on the specific context.

The most interesting aspect of this problem is that it highlights divergent national traditions in economic thought. In the German context, state-driven industrial policy and economic planning are taken as a given, such that oblique reference to “framework conditions” is sufficient to convey the need for centralized planning approaches which, from an Anglo perspective, might seem like the first step on the road to serfdom. On a practical level, this means it might be necessary when translating to expressly state that “government intervention into the private sector” is required for these “business conditions” to be achieved, in order to make the situation clear for English readers.

Did I mention the term is fraught with difficulty?

Marktlücken and Codified Error

I previously introduced the term “codified error” to refer to the tendency for clearly erroneous or problematic translations to become widely accepted as standard terminology. The lack of good equivalents for common terms is a widespread and often underestimated problem. Often the only solution for ensuring a professional result in English is to take an adaptive approach that expresses the term resisting translation in a short phrase. A good example: The common German word Marktlücke is generally translated as “market gap” or “market niche.”  Both of these accepted translations are inaccurate, however. The German term refers to an unmet customer need or opportunity for entering the marketplace. In English, the slightly alternate phrasing “gap in the market” is a good solution. Another way to express the German is to refer to a “market niche that is underserved” or “not yet served.”

This type of transformation is often unavoidable if one wishes to offer an English text that is free from usage problems, as there are widespread terminological incompatibilities between German and English that cannot simply be papered over with improvised yet incongruous loan words that are both stylistically questionable and semantically misleading.

Knowledge transfer

The American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf argued that language and perception are inextricably intertwined. While this idea, known as the “Whorfian hypothesis,” fell into disrepute in the 1960s, linguists have shown a renewed interest in “linguistic determinism” in recent years, presenting robust evidence in various studies that language shapes basic cognitive processes, including one’s sense of direction, numeracy, and perception of color. Although it would be a mistake to overemphasize the extent to which language structures experience, the opponents of the  Whorfian hypothesis – such as Steven Pinker, who argues that thought always “precedes” linguistic representation – seem far too eager to dismiss the strong empirical and common-sense evidence for linguistically driven cognition. Indeed, my everyday experience dealing with nuances of meaning in English and German has made me a strong proponent of the view that language mediates perception, even though it can be extremely difficult to disentangle language from culture, as many apparent cases of divergence in “perceptual habitus,” as it were, can easily be ascribed to divergence in cultural experience. Yet not always.

One excellent example of “grammar-driven perception” concerns the ease with which the German language can often represent abstract domains of activity as concrete “things” in ways that have no direct analogue in English. Indeed, this Verdinglichung (or “reification”) of notions that appear to English speakers to be quite “abstract” is a crucial difference between German and English. This difference is related to how German relies more extensively on nouns forms, or Substantivierungen, to express meaning. This linguistic difference is unrelated to “cultural” experience, but is related to how the language structures the modes of expression that one is “pushed” toward, like the ruts in a dirt road, when one seeks to make pronouncements about the world.

Let us turn to an example: “Wissenstransfer” is an interesting term that is well established in German but has no real equivalent in English. While online dictionaries such as LEO invariably translate the term as “knowledge transfer” in English, this  translation is inadequate: not only is it odd and ambiguous, it is simply inaccurate. In German, Wissenstransfer refers to the “activity of applying insights from academic research to the domain of real-world practice” (my definition). To my knowledge, there is no overarching term for this activity in English. Accordingly, the only solution when moving between German and English is to flesh out the intended meaning with a detailed explanation. In the text I was working on today, for example, it was stated at one point that “[the economists] sind auch im Wissenstrasfer aktiv.” The direct translation would read: “The economists are also active in knowledge transfer.” My more accurate translation that is sensitive to the absence of this term in English reads: “The economists also work to disseminate their research findings among policy-makers, thus encouraging their real-world application.”

While I believe this is an accurate translation, notice that in my version , “Wissenstransfer” is no longer a “thing,” but rather a fairly abstract field of endeavor. While this change to the “framing of the referent” was unproblematic in the aforementioned text, in other contexts this type of modification can fatally undermine the translation, because the activity is no longer conceived of in superordinate terms as a “thing” that can be set in easy relation to other “objects”. As a result, it becomes extremely difficult to refer to the “thing” on a repeated basis (among other problems that I will not even attempt to unpack here).

In any event, beyond the various implications that German’s tendency to reify the abstract has for the “conceptual habitus” of its speakers, I think a sheer awareness for this point of difference between German and English can improve one’s skill as a translator, for it allows one to recognize the underlying reasons as to why a translation is not working, thus allowing problems to be eradicated at the root.

Der Deppen-Binde-Strich

As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And one can only suppose that good intentions animated the marketing gurus who designed the signage for my local DIY store, aptly named “Hellweg.”

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What is meant here? “Bauten & Garten”? “Bauarten & Garten”? Upon closer inspection, “Bauen & Garten” must be the intended meaning, but correct grammar ’tis not.

I actually found this egregious eye-sore of an error to be less annoying than the following example of the
“Deppenapostroph” (“Apostrophe of the Typographically
Challenged”).

Apostroph

The apostrophe, of course, is upside down. But who’s perfect?

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