Recently I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the German word “auch.” Such a straightforward word, on the face of it. Yet again and again in past weeks I’ve seen this inconspicuous little term employed in a way that has no real equivalent in English. Take the following title of a press release for an upcoming conference in Mannheim, for example: “Steueroptimierung für Unternehmen auch in Krisenzeiten” (“Tax optimization for companies also in times of crisis”). For the native English speaker, this word-for-word translation is confusing. What is being said here? Essentially, that companies can benefit from optimizing their tax practices, even – or perhaps particularly – when the economy is bad. Here, “auch” takes on a particular function that the English term “also” lacks.
Another example: “Die hohen Verluste am Aktienmarkt im Herbst 2008 waren auch auf sogenanntes Short-Selling zurückzuführen” (“The high stock market losses in the fall of 2008 were also attributable to short-selling”). At first glance, this sentence seems perfectly fine in English. But what if it were the very first sentence of a newspaper article? In German, it would be perfectly acceptable; in English, it wouldn’t make any sense. In German, “auch” is used here to introduce a cause while also indicating that other causes are involved. “Also” lacks this specific functionality in English. A proper translation of the above sentence would have to be something like: “There were numerous causes of the stock market losses in the fall of 2008; short-selling was one of them.”
The use of the word “auch” in this manner is actually quite common in German, but it is readily overlooked until one becomes attuned to its unique function, and the ways in which it differs from the English “also.” It’s also interesting to note that way in which “auch” often seems to be used to hedge statements, to say, in effect, “here is the reason for something, but there could be additional (or more important) reasons for it, so I’ll add an ‘auch’ to avoid pinning myself down here.” Now that’s some heavy lifting for such a little word.