The auch error

“Auch” is such a simple word. And yet it is responsible for one of the most tenacious problems in German-to-English translation, a problem that has been a source of error in millions of documents. Incredibly, I have never seen this issue discussed at a blog or online dictionary; it is almost never recognized, neither by German native speakers authoring English texts, nor by professional translators.

I have written previously about this issue in two previous blog posts; both of these post fail to describe the problem in a straight-forward manner, however. After over a decade of pondering the “auch error”, I hope to clearly define it in this post.

“Auch” is used in a specific way in German that is extremely common but lacks a direct counterpart in English. The crucial difference is this: In German, “auch” can be used to introduce an item within a given a category while also implying that other, as-of-yet unnamed items apply. In this way, “auch” and “also” only have partially overlapping meanings (viz. nur teilweise überlappende Bedeutungsumfänge). In numerous instances, they are direct cognates. Except in the above case.

Let us turn to a very simple example: imagine someone asks, “What did you buy at the store?” In German, it would be permissible to answer “I also bought apples”, meaning “I bought apples, among other things.” For an English native speaker, “I also bought apples” is, of course, an absurd and ungrammatical response. Crucially, in English, “also” cannot be used to cite an example unless there has been previous explicit mention of other items in the category of concern.

This problem may seem totally banal and simple when described in such straight-forward terms. However, when the text is more complicated, the “auch” problem can be much harder to detect and address. Here is another example sentence: Spracherwerb bedeutet auch den Erwerb einzelsprachlicher Perspektivierungsmuster. Interestingly, translating this sentence into English correctly is not possible without seeing the larger context. If the text previously mentioned an example of “what language acquisition involves,” we could render “auch” directly as “also” (thus arriving at “Language learning also involves the acquisition of patterns of perspective native to that language.”) However, in the actual context, no prior example was cited. Accordingly, there are three possibilities for dealing with “auch”:

(1) delete it completely (I discuss why and how this strategy was applied by the translator of Max Weber here);

(2) render “auch” as “among other things” (or similar); or

(3) rephrase by adding more specific reference to the existence of an overarching category, and then transition to the example with “including” (viz. “Language learning has many component elements, including …).

Ultimately, I elected to use a variant of option 3. My translation reads: “One aspect of language learning is the acquisition of patterns of perspective native to that language.”