Category Archives: Denglisch

Confounding compounds

In this blog I particularly enjoy discussing translation problems that have no simple solution. Indeed, I would argue that intractable translation problems are inherently the most interesting. This is because they expose the degree to which linguistic systems can be fundamentally incompatible. And it is precisely here that we find the true task of the translator – to understand and bridge linguistic incompatibilities.

An interesting problem that I encounter with great frequency concerns a certain type of compound noun – specifically, the “compound proper name” and the divergent ways in which it is often formed in German and English.

In English, the qualifying or modifying elements of a compound noun almost always come first. For example, if an engineer is specialized in electrical systems, he is an “electrical engineer,” not an “engineer electrical.” Another example: if a college is specialized in training teachers, it is a “teachers college” and not a “college teachers.”

In certain cases in English, the qualifying element can be placed at the end of the compound, but when this is done, a comma is (usually) inserted, as in “Meal, Ready to Eat” or “Vice President, Commercial Lending.”

All of this is pretty obvious. However, in a wide variety of contexts in German, the qualifying element is placed at the end of the compound without a comma.

Here are a few examples of German compounds that do this, all of which are particularly interesting because they make use of terms that are technically English and thus ostensibly suited for an international audience: “Publishing Director Books,” “Main Office Sales,” “Wind Offshore,” “Trainee Purchasing,” and “Competence Center Cement.” In each of these cases, the word order has to be inverted or a comma inserted if the name is to be deployed successfully in an English speaking context. However, a serious problem arises when the proper name in question is already widely in circulation. Should the “Publishing Director Books” have all his business cards reprinted and title changed at the company website? The answer is yes. In other cases, as in “Competence Center Cement,” changing the name might not be so simple.

This problem can be particularly tricky because in certain cases the qualifying element can come at the end in English, as in “King’s College London.” Usually, however, the geographical designation comes first, as in “Ramstein Air Base.” So what should we do with “Pädagogische Hochschule Zentralschweiz”?



Realizing things in German

Overwhelmed by her victory in the Eurovision song contest last night, Germany’s Lena Meyer-Landrut was at a loss for words. She had clearly not yet come to grips with her win, or, as the German announcer covering the event put it: “Sie hat ihren Sieg noch nicht realisiert.” Lena herself admitted as much later, stating: “Ich hab’ das alles noch gar nicht richtig realisiert.” Strictly speaking, however, “realisieren” in German means “to bring about; to concretize” (as in, “Das Projekt wurde realisiert“). The meaning “to grasp or understand clearly” is a calque, the result of recent infiltration by the English language. Sadly, many – if not most – Germans are unaware of the questionable nature of “realisieren” in this context. Thus, the dilution of German by the Weltsprache continues apace.


The term Lohndumping (“wage dumping”) has become widely used in Germany over the past few years. Like many political buzzwords, it’s hard to define precisely: It refers in a general sense to the act of offering excessively low wages; accusations of “Lohndumping” are regularly voiced in low-wage sectors to highlight the ostensibly exploitive behavior of employers. Regardless of whether this term is useful and appropriate for drawing attention to unjust wage arrangements, I’ve always been uncomfortable with it sheerly on account of its etymology as a pseudo-English permutation of “price dumping.” “Price dumping,” of course, refers to a form of predatory behavior in which products manufactured cheaply in one market are “dumped” en masse onto another market, thereby depressing the price and running out the domestic competition. The term “Lohndumping” therefore strikes the native speaker of English as peculiar, for wages cannot be “dumped” in a figurative sense as products can. As a neologism that appears to have its origins in a misunderstanding of English, it’s highly disconcerting when prominent German politicians and economists employ the term “wage dumping” in English press conferences, unaware that the term simply doesn’t exist. The translators at Der Spiegel also seem to be in the dark, using “wage dumping” without explanation in the English version of a current article on the Greek debt crisis. A gloss is clearly needed here, as is recognized by the New York Times (note that the term “wage dumping” has only appeared 6 times in the history of the NYT’s publication, and in all instances to refer to statements made by a German politician or intellectual).

False friends

False friends – that is, apparent cognates in two languages that actually have quite different meanings – are often a source of difficulty for the foreign language learner. I’ve been shocked to realize on several occasions that my understanding of specific German terms –  the definitions of which seemed secure in my internal lexicon – had in fact been distorted by their putative English equivalents. When the error concerns a word for which one has a certain fondness, the experience is all the most disconcerting. Just yesterday I learned that, while the term “latent” can certainly have the exact same meaning in both languages,  it tends in German to designate a “hidden” but “constantly present” thing – in English, by contrast,  the term in everyday usage refers to a hidden potential which has not yet manifested itself. This is a key distinction: is the thing being described active or not? I had muttered quite a bit of invective under my breath at the author of the text I was translating for his ostensible misuse of the term before consulting with a German native speaker, who disabused me of my misconception.

For me, in the end, this was a harmless error. A young girl who lives on the ground floor of our building wasn’t as lucky when she unwittingly stumbled into the snares of an embarrassing false cognate the other week. The girl in question, who on occassion attempts to showcase her English skills in my presence, announced during a brief exchange in the stairwell that she had “not douched today” – in German, “duschen” means “to shower,” but the word has quite a different meaning in English. This was a bit of personal trivia which I would have gladly been spared.

Parenthetical inserts

A frequent point of difficulty for the German-to-English translator concerns the handling of parenthetical inserts, as there is a clear divergence between the two languages in the conventions that govern their usage. While parenthesis are used in both German and English to offer explanatory or qualifying statements about that which is said, German parenthetical remarks are often introduced in a manner that the English native speaker cannot help but find somewhat abrupt. In English, for example, when a substitute term is introduced in parenthesis, the new term is typically offered in the form of a rhetorical aside. Take the following example:

The Red Army Faction (also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang) was a far-left radical group.

The phrase “also known as” helps to steer the reader and preserve the cadence of the sentence. In German, however, alternative terms are often presented in a highly direct manner, without such formalities, as in the following examples:

Die Planzen werden in den Kärntner Alpen (Nockberge) in einem Naturschutzprojekt kultiviert und streng kontrolliert geerntet.

Bei der Schaltung von Bannern und dem Einkauf von Werbeflächen (Mediaplanung) stehen wir unseren Kunden mit unserem langjährigen Know-how zur Seite.

Although this style of substitutional insertion is not unknown in English, it is used far less frequently than in German. This type of substitution, when translated directly, often yields a target sentence with a disjointed feeling. In this way, in light of the clear discrepencies between German and English usage in this area, the translator should take the liberty of rephrasing parenthetical inserts to conform with the conventions of good, standard English, lightly embellishing them as necessary to ensure smooth sentence cadence.


Pseudo-anglicisms, that is, words borrowed from English and invested with new meaning in another language, are particularly abundant in German marketing texts. PR and communications agencies in Germany regularly employ mountains of English marketing jargon in their client presentations. Frequently, highly specialized terms are employed incorrectly; in other cases, one encounters pseudo-English terminology that has been codified with new definitions. A harrowing job for the translator. I was working on a Power Point presentation yesterday in which a list of proposed marketing activities appeared; one bullet point read: “Claim als Crowner.” I found this rather funny – two putatively English words side-by-side that an English speaker would not understand. The term “Claim” is quite common and used in German to mean “slogan.” I had to do some research on “Crowner,” however, which turns out to be an advertising sticker on a display case (a riff on Krönung, perhaps?). I’m often curious as to origin of these terms, which, in many instances, seemed to be rooted in a misunderstanding of English. The term “claim,” of course, can be used in English to indicate an argument made about the merits of a product. I would suppose it was simply misinterpreted some decades ago by an exchange student who went on to become an influential marketing guru in Germany. “Crowner,” on the other hand, has clearly been spun from whole cloth, much like the German marketing terms “BlowUp” (for an extremely large billboard) and “Sell-Out-Unterstützung” (the meaning of which I am still trying to ascertain).

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…).

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.”)

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.

A happy end(ing)

The German tendency to freely adopt English terms and expressions has been widely observed. Yet beyond the butchering of the German language that can often result from the wholesale borrowing of English expressions, the German-to-English translator is confronted by a particular challenge when required to “re-translate” expressions which are putatively English but which have been invested with new meaning in German. For example, what exactly are “Servicedienstleistungen” other than just “Dienstleistungen”: service-services, perhaps?

The German use of the term “dumping” can also be highly befuddling. In English, a company can be accused of engaging in “price dumping” when it sells its products at extremely low prices to undercut competitors – the products are, so to speak, “dumped” on the market. From this perspective, the German neologism “Lohndumping” sounds particularly incongruous for the native speaker of English because “wages” cannot be “dumped” in any figurative sense.

It’s also confusing when English terms are used in German texts for no apparent reason. In a PowerPoint presentation I recently translated for a large German IT provider, for example, one slide discussed the regrettable tendency of customers to use service hotlines unnecessarily. This was identified as the “Hello Joe Problem.” What was the motivation for the invention of this phrase? Considering I’ve never met anyone in Germany named “Joe,” the name choice is all the more inexplicable.  Should this perhaps have been translation into English as the “‘Hallo Klaus Problem”?

Another comical malapropism is the German use of the expression “happy end,” which 82 million Germans have confused with “happy ending.” In English, of course, one is said to have “met a happy end” when one dies, which lends the German use of the expression a particularly macabre ring. Were the makers of the “Happy End” toilet paper brand aware of this linguistic mix up?