Judicious cutting

Comparing the German edition of Die protestanische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus with Gordon Wells’s superb new translation (2002), I am reminded again that simply cutting material is occasionally the only judicious strategy for dealing with some specific and recurring problems. One common difficulty in translating German is the “auch” problem, which I have written about previously here. In German, “auch” frequently has a specific function that “also” lacks, and which is hard to render effectively without disturbing the English sentence.

Let us turn directly to an example: in The Protestant Ethic, Weber writes: “Deutlich zeigt sich hier die Abweichung von der mittelalterlichen Haltung. Auch Thomas von Aquinas hatte jenen Satz interpretiert. Aber nach ihm ist die Arbeit nur naturali ratione notwendig zur Erhaltung des Lebens des einzelnen und der Gesamtheit” (p. 142, 2002, Anaconda Verlag).

A translation of the second sentence that seeks to preserve the full meaning of the original German would be: “Thomas Aquinas, among others, interpreted this sentence.” However, Wells correctly recognizes that in English, the phrasing “among others” is awkward and superfluous, as Weber does not subsequently make mention of any other individuals. Thus, he opts for the following translation instead: “According to Thomas Aquinas’s interpretation of the Pauline principle, work is only necessary ‘naturali ratione’ for the preservation of the life of the individual and the community” (p. 108f, 2002, Penguin).

The decision to simply cut “auch” here is a good one, and a mark of Wells’s talent as a translator, as he does not attempt to adhere slavishly to the German when there are excellent reasons for judicious intervention. In my experience, “auch” is a term that is often employed rather reflexively by German writers, and while its use in German may be permissible in a specific case, its removal may be the only logical solution in light of the transformation necessary when converting to English, for “among others” cannot simply be inserted inconspicuously into an English text, and English readers will balk at cryptic reference to “unmentioned others” that is left to stand without further elaboration. Clearly, beyond the words on the page, how the reader will react to the text is a crucial consideration, and cannot simply be ignored.

In this vein, another term that is employed frequently in a reflexive manner by German writers in ways that are curious when one translates into English is “insbesondere” (“in particular”). Wells remarks on this in his introduction, which I would like to quote at length: “The second major area of difficulty is that of syntax, or sentence structure. Even by the standards of German academic writing, Weber’s sentences are inordinately long, with one subordinate clause being embedded in another like Russian matryoschka dolls. No doubt this was a result of the fecundity of Weber’s thought processes, whereby he constantly sought to further qualify and refine his statements. However, at times this almost seems to have become a mannerism, so that (to give an example) he can rarely bear to simply state ‘most,’ without adding, in parenthesis, ‘but by no means all.’ He also seems to have a predilection for phrases meaning ‘in particular’ (ibid., lxxi).”

On a side note, it is interesting how Wells’s writing here is clearly influenced itself by German syntax, as is evident in his use of “whereby” (wobei) and “so that” (sodass).