All posts by Lucais

German lists

Today I wanted to share a few thoughts about German lists – the scourge of the German-to-English translator. Germans have a great fondness for lists. And, due to the machine-like precision of German grammatical constructions, lists can take on bewildering forms (read: ineinandergeschachtelte Formen). Many lists simply defy a 1:1 translation. For this reason, the astute translator must look beyond the words on the page to arrive at context-based adaptation that does its best to honor the contents of the source text.

Take a look at the following list: “Darüber hinaus [umfasst das Portfolio] aber auch alle relevanten Spezialbereiche wie Gebäudeautomation, Förder-, Licht-, Kommunikations- und Sicherheitstechnik bis zu Alternativtechnologien und regenerativen Energien, die zunehmend an Bedeutung gewinnen.” The extended compound construction in the middle of the sentence (i.e. “Förder-, Licht-, Kommunikations- und Sicherheitstechnik”) simply cannot be translated directly into English; English grammar does not allow for this type of formulation. This does not mean, however, that the sentence cannot be translated. Heavy modification (or “re-building,” as I like to call it) is simply required.

Let’s take a look at how another translator handled this sentence, to get a better idea of what one should avoid doing: “In addition, however, also all relevant special aspects such as building automation, conveying, lighting, communications and safety engineering through to alternative technologies and regenerative energy, which are gaining in importance.” First of all, this is an incomplete sentence. Although German marketing texts often contain sentences which would be considered incomplete in English, the implied subject and verb of the original construction (i.e. “the portfolio comprises”) must be integrated into the English translation. Second, the translator’s rendering of the word “relevant” – a false cognate – is inappropriate. The best solution is to drop the term, as all possible approximations only worsen the sentence. Turning to the translator’s handling of the listed items, one is at first struck by the disjointed phrasing: “conveying” as an “aspect” of the portfolio? “Communications engineering”? The word choice is not only problematic here, the cadence of the sentence is an affront to the reader.

Here’s my revised version: “Yet the company also provides specialized services for building automation, communication and safety systems, lighting, and conveyer applications – in addition to planning services for regenerative- and alternative-energy technologies, an area of increasing importance.” Several changes were necessary here: first of all, it was essential to escape the source text’s definition of the listed items as “areas” within the portfolio (this was the key change, and is an important strategy for dealing with lists of this nature). The various items are instead viewed as “services,” which adds more flexibility to the range of terminology that can be used. Second, it was necessary to abandon the utterly non-translatable compound construction “Förder-, Licht-, Kommunikations- und Sicherheitstechnik.” Intelligent rephrasing was required here. Third, with regard to the flow of the sentence, it proved helpful to simply reorganize the listed items. This is another important strategy for dealing with German lists (some might raise objection to this approach by rightfully pointing out that the order of listed items can have bearing on the relative importance attached to them. In English, however, this is only true in exceptional circumstances, and certainly not in the present example).

Considering the massive reformulation of the source text that was required to arrive at a clear English sentence, one is impressed here by the degree to which translation can become an act of interpretation. Clearly, the translator must take an active role in re-structuring the source text for the sake of the reader. From this perspective, “accuracy” in translation is a highly subjective idea; a translation is only “faithful” as a function of the interpretative creativity and skill of the translator, not in its fidelity to the purported inviolability of the signifiers in the source text.

(Readers have rightfully pointed out that the translation of English lists into German is beset by its own unique problems. This post does not mean to imply that German is somehow unique with regard to the difficulties involved in the translation of listed items.)

Proper names that aren’t so proper

There’s a gym near our apartment in Berlin that advertises itself as a “health and fitness club” on a sign above the main entrance. I walked past the gym regularly for weeks and always thought to myself, “Now, what’s the actual name of this place? They should display the name more prominently.” This morning my patience was finally exhausted. Determined to identify the gym’s name, I stopped to inspect the sign and peer through the windows. Lo and behold: the place is simply called “Health and Fitness Club.”

Proper names based on everyday English words are actually not that rare in Germany, and I find them to be highly annoying. In Stuttgart, for example, there’s a company called “Financial Consulting,” a business name you could never actual register in the U.S., because it fails to identify the business uniquely. (I can just imagine the founder filling out the registration papers: Name of business? Financial consulting. Type of business? Financial consulting…).

Grading systems

In recent weeks I’ve been confronted numerous times by a special translation problem which I suspect may be unique to German-English translation. The problem concerns the translation of German grades into English, or, more specifically, the difficulty in arriving at appropriate and honest translations when mediating between the divergent conventions of the American and German grading systems. In the U.S., of course, the standard grading scale is usually: A=excellent, B=very good/good, C=satisfactory, D=poor, and F=fail. In Germany, by contrast, a numerical scale is used, with the following rankings: 1=sehr gut (very good), 2=gut (good), 3=befriedigend (satisfactory), 4=ausreichend (sufficient), 5=mangelhaft (deficient), 6=ungenügend (insufficient).

It’s interesting to note the clear discrepancy at the top of the scale: the best possible mark in Germany is “very good,” a grade which is a notch below best in the U.S. While the remaining differences don’t seem excessive at first glance, real complications arise when one goes about translating German “report cards” into English, particularly into US English (interestingly enough, it’s actually much easier to translate German grades into British English, a topic which I’ll leave aside for now). The problem is two-dimensional: on the one hand, due to so-called “grade inflation” in the US, anything below an A-average is less than spectacular, and certainly doesn’t earn you a scholarship. Yet at the same time, Germans have a tendency to be extremely reserved in their praise, which is reflected in the relative greater difficulty of achieving a top mark in German courses, as well as in the peak grade designation of “very good” (in contrast to “excellent”).

On a practical level, this means that a German report card that consists solely of “2s” (or “straight Bs”) – certainly a respectable performance in Germany – can come across as somewhat mediocre in the U.S. As a result, the translator is placed in a bind, and must reconcile two sets of opposing loyalties – the first: to the source text, and to the faithful transcription of its contents; and the second: to the context of the linguistic encounter, to the meaning and interpretations which will be received by the reader. One possible method of resolving this issue – to leave the grades untranslated – is, in my view, no solution at all, because it fails to provide the reader with a perspective on the student’s academic performance. The translator’s job is to filter meaning, not to obfuscate it. Considering the inadequacies of a 1:1 translation, the best solution here – and one that I have employed several times in the past – is to retain the German numerical grade, but to append it with a slightly more laudatory description than a direct translation would otherwise permit. Thus, for example, “2 (gut)” is rendered as 2 (”very good”), and “1 (sehr gut)” is translated as “1 (excellent).” Some translators might raise objection to this “context-based” or “interpretive” approach to resolving the issue, and insist that the translator has overstepped his bounds with such a solution, yet I’m convinced of its merits. A translation cannot be viewed as “faithful” if it ultimately does a disservice to the meaning that lies behind the text.

International cinema

I was reading Peter Scholl-Latour’s “Lügen im Heiligen Land” the other night when I ran across a rather amusing passage. Here it is: “Warum fällt mir plötzlich aus einem der erfolgreichsten Abenteuer-Filme Steven Spielbergs jene Szene ein, in der sich Indiana Jones als ‘Jäger des verlorenen Schatzes’ – so lautet die Produktion auf deutsch – in einem imaginären Orient gegen eine Horde gotteslästerlicher Nazis durchsetzt? Es ist bezeichnend für den kümmerlichen Wissenstand des deutschen Kino – und Fernsehpublikums – zumindest wird er von dem Programm-Machern so eingeschätzt –, daß man ihm den amerikanischen Originaltitel ‘The Raiders of the Lost Arch’ vorenthielt.

I had a similar thought about the fairly recent German movie “The Lives of Others,” which was well received in the US. Are Americans simply too insular to relate to the original title, “Das Kleben der Anderen”?

(The original name of the Spielberg movie is of course “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The Oscar-winning movie directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is titled “Das Leben der Anderen.”)

On examples

The translator’s job is to resolve problems – to smooth out incongruities between languages, to bridge the gap between linguistic systems. Translation can be a highly frustrating endeavor – a seemingly Sisyphean task, at times – yet the translator can also relish a sense of satisfaction when things “work” – when, by dint of luck or skill, it’s possible to render a translation that is both highly true to the original text and eminently readable.

In translation, however, very few things “work” automatically. Any translator who takes his job seriously will admit to occasionally spending up to a half-hour or more on the translation of a single sentence. While this time expenditure can often be attributed to the incontrovertibility of specific terms or idioms, in many instances – and herein lies the rub – the grammatical conventions of the source text simply preclude its direct adaptation.

Take, for instance, the way in which the expression “for example” (zum Beispiel or z.B.) can be employed in German. Linguistically, “for example” is used to introduce an object or concept representative of a given category or group. In English, if this overarching class or group is not specifically defined, it is almost always clearly implied. Interestingly, in German texts “for example” is sometimes used in situations when the larger subsuming class is left unintroduced. Take the following sentence: “Durch intelligente Systemintegration erreichen Sie beispielsweise eine verlässliche Anbindung an Ihr Warenwirtschaftssystem.” A direct translation: “Thanks to intelligent system integration you’re provided with a reliable connection to your inventory management system, for example.” Some translators would also likely opt for the following rendering: “Thanks to intelligent system integration you’re provided, e.g. with a reliable connection to your inventory management system.” Both translations ring false because of a divergence in conventions governing the use of the expression “for example.” In the first version it is unclear what is being cited as an example, the “system integration” or the “management system.” The second version is simply incorrect. If the source sentence had been originally formulated in English at least tacit reference would have been made to the overarching category under which the example falls. Here’s a possible alternate translation: “Thanks to intelligent system integration you’re provided with a number of benefits, such as a reliable connection to your inventory management system.” The interesting point here is that the translation of the text in a manner that adheres to normal conventions for the presentation of information in English is only possible through an act of interpretation and the inclusion of inferred information. Essentially, the incompatibility of German and English with regard to the use of “for example” in this instance necessitates the reformulation of the source text.

Here’s another interesting case of “for example” used in German in the absence of a clear category: “15 Partneragenturen repräsentieren Werbeagentur X in 15 Ländern exklusiv mit Schwerpunkt in Europa. In enger Zusammenarbeit entstehen beispielsweise Kampagnen, die länderübergreifend erfolgreich sind” (”Fifteen partnering agencies exclusively represent Ad Agency X in 15 different countries, with a focus on Europe. In close cooperation, for example, successful transnational campaigns are created.”) Translated directly the second sentence is fairly unintelligible, and is also grammatically incorrect. What is being cited as an example here? The “cooperation” or the “campaigns”? In German, the relationship is quite clear – essentially, the agencies work closely together to produce lots of great stuff; one example of the great stuff they produce is successful campaigns – yet the German sentence eludes direct translation into English. A context-based approach was finally taken here, yielding the following translation: “Fifteen partnering agencies exclusively represent Ad Agency X in 15 different countries, with a focus on Europe. Successful transnational campaigns are developed in close-coordination with these partners.”

In the above sentence the best course of action was to simply drop “for example.” The alternative would have been to invent an introductory clause to properly transition to the example cited. Some might object to the liberties taken with the source text, yet I would contend that in this particular case “for example” had been inserted reflexively by the author and ultimately didn’t hold much meaning. (The listing of one example implies that there are other examples which could be cited – but in this specific text there was literally nothing of relevance which could been listed alongside “successful campaigns.”)

On a semiotic level, a host of expressions – such as “beispielwiese,” “auch,” and “etwa” – can be easily employed in German to allude to further examples of that which is specifically addressed. In the process, sentences are created which are inadmissible on a structural level in English. I hope to discuss this topic in greater detail in an upcoming post.

Loanwords and misnomers

English loanwords are proliferate in the German language, and new words are adopted on a daily basis. Borrowing is particularly pronounced in the business world, where mastery of English neologisms carries a certain cachet. Scores of English words invariably crop up in German marketing texts. Take the following extreme example, which I came across recently: “Last not least sorgen unter anderem vier Bands mit heißem Sound für eine tolle Stimmung und echtes Partyfeeling.”

The particular problem for the translator—which the above sentence demonstrates fairly well—relates to the way in which borrowed words are often invested with new meaning in German. “Partyfeeling” is of course an invented compound which only the most foolhardy would dare to transcribe directly. Yet the most probable renderings—“party atmosphere,” or similar, are also fraught with the potential for inaccuracy, as the term “Party” in German can be an acceptable designation for a rather staid corporate reception—which is not the case in English.

False cognates await the unwary translator in a myriad of seemingly innocuous contexts. In German, for example, the term “Trailer” designates all manner of short promotional videos. In English, however, a “trailer” is specifically a promotional clip for a feature film—an unawareness of this fact can lead to a serious error in the translation. In a similar vein, the term “Headline” is used in German to indicate the heading of any document; in English, by contrast, we only speak of headlines in the newspaper. An even stranger example is the German use of the term “Wording,” which refers generally to a company’s internal language—“wording” in English, of course, merely refers to the way something is phrased.

The German use of the word “team” in business contexts is also a source of particular frustration for the translator. In Germany the staff of any company is often referred to as the “team”; in English, by contrast, the term is used much more sparingly to designate an inter-organizational group with a specific task—if it is used at all. Confronted with the term in many contexts the translator may feel compelled to select a substitute, yet he can only do so at the risk of arousing the resistance of the client, for whom “team” is the firmly established designation.

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.

Reactions to Krugman

I went to see Paul Krugman speak earlier this evening at the Freie Universität. Krugman primarily discussed his new book, “Conscience of a Liberal,” rehashing the book’s arguments for the audience. Krugman’s main point is that inequality in the US has risen dramatically in recent decades, to the point where income disparities now resemble Gilded Age America, when robber barons and J.D. Rockefeller set the national agenda. Krugman asserts that the middle-class and largely egalitarian America of the 1950s was created – not simply born on its own – as a by-product of the New Deal’s social policies. (Taxes on corporations and the rich, for example, were significantly lower prior to WW2.) In recent decades, however, many redistributive mechanisms and populist policies have been undermined by “movement conservatism,” an informal alliance between conservative think tanks, religious leaders, and monied interests that has been an extremely powerful force in American politics. In his book, Krugman heralds the decline of movement conservatism and encourages the passage of progressive social policies – such as universal health care – to put the middle class back on solid footing.

While his talk certainly wasn’t disappointing, I felt like it was intentionally “dumbed down” somewhat for the German audience, and I would have preferred to hear more on his view of the current state of the US economy and financial markets. There was a Q&A session after the talk, in which I asked Krugman to comment on: 1) whether of not the US Consumer Price Index has been distorted for political reasons (in his new book, “Bad Money,” Kevin Phillips, an extremely respected economist, claims that the CPI is understated by several percent – see John Williams’s site for more details); and 2) the veracity of the depictions in John Perkins’s book, “Confessions of an Economic Hitman.”

Not surprisingly, Krugman didn’t lend much credence to the CPI theory or John Perkins. Krugman said he personally knows and trusts many of the economists at the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, but admitted that other government stats have been manipulated in recent years for political reasons. Regarding John Perkins, Krugman said that he was somewhat incredulous when he read certain parts of “Confessions” (a reaction I also had) and doubts that everything Perkins claims is one-hundred-percent true. (Krugman did allow, however, that “you never know” and that the kind of corruption Perkins describes does occur.)

Biking home from the talk, I recalled Foucault’s famous inversion of the dictum “Knowledge is power.” For Foucault, the reverse was true: “Power is knowledge,” i.e. the powerful use their influence to manufacture “hegemonic narratives” that gain widespread acceptance not for their inherent truth, but rather due to the interests that stand to benefit from their dissemination. This is essentially the argument Krugman makes about movement conservatism – one key to understanding its ascendancy is to look at how powerful corporate interests have been expressed through the funding of right-wing think tanks and other institutions that formulate conservative doctrine. The interesting fact here is that many of the academics who rise through the ranks in these institutions are not simply bending their arguments to “serve their masters,” so to speak, but rather that selective factors are at work to weed out “non-believers” and promote those who truly harbor conservative worldviews, regardless of their ultimate academic merits.

Considering Krugman’s rejection of the “conspiracy theories” I queried him about, I can’t help but wondering if similar selective factors have been at work in Krugman’s career. Quite simply, What are the limits of debate? Could it be that Krugman simply represents a liberal counterpart to the conservative opinion leaders he maligns? Krugman, despite his left-wing views, is still a “mainstream voice” – the core validity of the US government and economic system is not cast into question. I certainly don’t consider myself a radical – I believe in markets and the need for a strong national defense (to put it simplistically) – but this is an interesting point to consider. The commentators who truly excoriate US policies – Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, Gore Vidal, Alexander Cockburn, James Howard Kunstler, et al. – find no voice in mainstream media. Is Krugman merely a blue-state Bill O’Reilly?

Krugman in Berlin

Paul Krugman, the celebrated New York Times columnist, is in Berlin this week, and will be speaking on the 22nd at the Freie Universität. In his latest blog entry, Krugman writes about the “jelly donut” myth, which still has traction in the US despite its blatant falsehood. JFK’s statement – “Ich bin ein Berliner” – was, of course, grammatically correct, but can be willfully misinterpreted as meaning “I am a jelly donut.” (A possible equivalent would be Pope Ratzinger saying “I am a New Yorker” and all of Germany thinking he meant the Reuben sandwich.)

Krugman is an extremely important voice in America at the moment. His latest book, “The Conscience of a Liberal,” explores the political underpinnings of widening inequality in the US. Krugman draws attention to the startling fact that the average US worker’s inflation-adjusted income has barely risen since the early 1980s – despite two decades of rising productivity. The earnings of those in upper-income brackets, however, have soared – particularly the earnings of the top 1 percent of the population – a fact Krugman attributes to the rise of movement conservatism and regressive tax and social policies.

As a NYT columnist, Krugman is an important whistle-blower and fierce opponent of the Bush administration’s policies. An economist by training, Krugman regularly provides valuable insights in his column and blog about the US economy and the current mortgage and credit crises. I’ll be extremely interested to see what Krugman has to say on Thursday.