German resumes

Due to the structural characteristics of the German language, the translation of itemized lists often poses a significant challenge for the translator. The difficulty is related specifically to the key role that verbal nouns play in the language; “substantivized verbs,” as they are called, are often grouped together with nouns in sentence fragments that elude direct translation. Much to the chagrin of the translator, almost any verb can be substantivized in German, including Durchführung (the substantive form of “to execute” or “to carry out,” i.e. “the carrying-out”), Übergabe (i.e. “the hand-over” or “transfer” of a thing), or Neuaufstellung (i.e. “the renewed setup” or “repositioning”).

In German lists―and this may surprise those unfamiliar with the language―normal verbs are often completely omitted in lieu of verbal noun forms. German resumes, for example, invariably contain extended lists of previous accomplishments―all without the use of a single verb. Typical resume items, translated directly, might include: “Implementation of software provisioning,” “Carrying-out of system hand-over,” or “Collaboration in customer communications,” etc. (It’s interesting to note the contrast here between Geman and English resume-writing conventions. The English resume writer is encouraged to make generous use of active verb forms; the German resume, by contrast, is conspicuous for its abundant use of passive constructions―which should in fact be simply attributed to the language’s grammatical conventions).

Faced with an extensive list of items and no verbs in sight, the astute translator will do his best to convert the text into sensible English. Often verbal nouns can be converted into more active forms. But this is not always easy. Here we arrive at a perennial problem in translation: The semantic function of the source text may not be clear, yet an interpretive act is required. Compromise, patience, and creativity are needed on the part of the translator.

Polemics in the German press

Although German newspapers entertain standards of objectivity quite different from their American counterparts – German articles often have an openly polemic bent, with positions advanced in a forthright manner that would surprise the uninitiated US reader – I was dumbstruck by a recent article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung discussing the Deutsche Telekom scandal.

The following sentence left me baffled: “Finanzminister Peer Steinbrück (SPD) hat die Private-Equity-Gesellschaft Blackstone (”Heuschrecke”) nicht zuletzt deswegen als Minderheitsaktionär an Bord geholt, um dem Telekom-Management Dampf zu machen.” (My translation: Finance Minister Peer Steinburck (SPD) brought the private-equity firm Blackstone (”locust”) on board as a minority shareholder in part to exert pressure on Deutsche Telekom’s management).

While many German politicians are fond of employing the term Heuschrecke (”locust”) to attack the ostensibly pernicious influence of hedge funds, the term is a highly politicized one, and the off-handed manner with which it is used here is totally inappropriate. There is also a glibness to the gloss that I find highly annoying (but which may in fact simply relate to the brevity that often characterizes German parenthetical insertions): no explanatory remarks are offered, the term is simply interjected as if there were a 1:1 equivalence between “Blackstone” and “locust.”

What should one make of this? Was the author of the article simply unaware of the loaded nature of the term, which the editors subsequently overlooked? Or has this description of hedge funds now achieved a level of mainstream acceptance that no qualificatory remarks are required? Both of these alternatives are cause for concern.