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.”


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


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

Confounding compounds

In this blog I particularly enjoy discussing translation problems that have no simple solution. Indeed, I would argue that intractable translation problems are inherently the most interesting. This is because they expose the degree to which linguistic systems can be fundamentally incompatible. And it is precisely here that we find the true task of the translator – to understand and bridge linguistic incompatibilities.

An interesting problem that I encounter with great frequency concerns a certain type of compound noun – specifically, the “compound proper name” and the divergent ways in which it is often formed in German and English.

In English, the qualifying or modifying elements of a compound noun almost always come first. For example, if an engineer is specialized in electrical systems, he is an “electrical engineer,” not an “engineer electrical.” Another example: if a college is specialized in training teachers, it is a “teachers college” and not a “college teachers.”

In certain cases in English, the qualifying element can be placed at the end of the compound, but when this is done, a comma is (usually) inserted, as in “Meal, Ready to Eat” or “Vice President, Commercial Lending.”

All of this is pretty obvious. However, in a wide variety of contexts in German, the qualifying element is placed at the end of the compound without a comma.

Here are a few examples of German compounds that do this, all of which are particularly interesting because they make use of terms that are technically English and thus ostensibly suited for an international audience: “Publishing Director Books,” “Main Office Sales,” “Wind Offshore,” “Trainee Purchasing,” and “Competence Center Cement.” In each of these cases, the word order has to be inverted or a comma inserted if the name is to be deployed successfully in an English speaking context. However, a serious problem arises when the proper name in question is already widely in circulation. Should the “Publishing Director Books” have all his business cards reprinted and title changed at the company website? The answer is yes. In other cases, as in “Competence Center Cement,” changing the name might not be so simple.

This problem can be particularly tricky because in certain cases the qualifying element can come at the end in English, as in “King’s College London.” Usually, however, the geographical designation comes first, as in “Ramstein Air Base.” So what should we do with “Pädagogische Hochschule Zentralschweiz”?



Historical tensions

Language is inseparable from its social and political contexts. This truism is never more apparent than during the translation process, when adequate equivalents for seemingly straightforward terms can be elusive. Historical circumstance is often the cause when words resist direct translation. Take the simple German term “Nachrüstung,” for example. While generally used to refer to the “upgrading” or “retrofitting” of something (e.g. a house or car), in the context of the Cold War, it refers to NATO’s plans to “upgrade” (i.e. expand and modernize) its nuclear arsenal in Western Europe, as part of the Double-Track Decision of 1979, which was adopted in response to growing Soviet nuclear strength. In the debate that erupted in Germany about whether to allow the US to station dozens of new Pershing II missiles on German soil, the scheme was soon referred to as the “Nachrüstung” – i.e. “are you for it or against it?”

Three decades later, with the world still fortunately intact and nuclear winter averted, the translator confronts the following sentence: “Anfang 1984 befanden sich die Ost-West-Beziehungen angesichts der Nachrüstung in Westeuropa auf dem Tiefpunkt.”

A direct translation would read: “At the beginning of 1984 East-West relations were at a low point due to the retrofitting in Western Europe.”

For obvious reasons, there is no single term that works as a translation for “Nachrüstung.” The translator must recognize the historical context in order to arrive at an adapted equivalent. “Rearmament” can work as a translation for “Nachrüstung” in other contexts, but here it would be quite misleading. I eventually used “NATO’s deployment of medium-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe” (the Pershing II, with a range of 1000 miles, was designed to replace the Pershing I, which only flew half as far). However, other solutions are possible. “The intensification of the arms race” (or similar) could work as an alternative, but that elides over the fact that the German source text is referring to a specific historical episode, and not the Cold War arms race generally.

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