While translating a press release the other day I was again reminded that a translator must go about his work with an extremely sharp ear for nuances in meaning. Although two words may initially appear to occupy the same semiotic space, careful reflection often reveals subtle discrepancies in meaning that must be carefully negotiated. The English word “dog,” for example, may have the same designatory function as the German word “Hund,” but in many cases the range of semiotic overlap and/or divergence between apparent synonyms in two languages is not so clear cut (this overlap is known as “synonomy” in linguistics). Particularly startling is when words that have been treated as synonyms by translators and dictionaries suddenly reveal themselves as rather different in common contexts. German-English dictionaries, for example, invariably offer “convincing” as a translation for “überzeugend.” This translation, however, often strikes the native speaker of English as inappropriate, as testfied by the number of forum entries at LEO concerning this word.
“Compelling” is often a suitable alternative, but even this word fails to accurately recapitulate the meaning of “überzeugend” in many contexts. “Überzeugend” is often used to tout the high-quality of a product or service, a function that “compelling” and “convincing” do not usually take on in English. A free translation is called for in such cases, as others have recognized. This realization requires an inductive leap, however, so it’s understandable that many translators still resort to “convincing” for lack of a more inspired alternative.In any event, “convincing” must be regarded as an error in many contexts. Those with a sharp sense for linguistic nuance will quickly recognize that “convincing” is often used as a descriptor in situations when the veracity of a statement could be subject to question, as in “the words of President Bush were very convincing.” In this way, as “convincing” is often used to counteract doubts about a given fact or situation, it is loaded with a particular undercurrent of meaning, and is not equivalent to “überzeugend” in the sense of a wholesale endorsement of a product or service’s merits.
To return to the press release mentioned at the beginning of this post, the German text read as follows: “Die Firma … hat ein überzeugendes Zukunftskonzept erarbeitet.”If one were to translate this as “a convincing strategy for the future,” the English reader would be left wondering why it is necessary to affirm that the strategy is “convincing.” This is a clear pitfall for the unwary translator, as the German text wants to say something else entirely.My translation was: “The company has developed … a business strategy with a promising outlook for the future.”