Category Archives: translation humor

When is precision excessive?

When I was first living in Berlin and new to Germany I was surprised to regularly overhear telephone conversations on the subway that went something like this: “Hey Klaus, I’m on my way but I will be a bit late; you can expect me in 6 to 7 minutes.” Sometimes the delay cited would be 13 to 14 minutes, or 17 to 18 minutes, but it would invariably involve a narrow time range and at least one prime number. An American, of course, would never attempt to quantify the delay with such precision, as this would seem foolish (“will you really be there in exactly 6 to 7 minutes??”) and/or completely anal, as it violates the unwritten law that you must announce you are going to be late with numbers divisible by five. From the German perspective, however, providing a fastidiously accurate Zeitangabe (i.e. “time specification”) is completely reasonable, as everyone knows the average station-to-station travel time in Berlin is 2 minutes, so you merely have to multiply the number of subway stops by 2 and add the additional walking time required, considering that at a brisk pace you can cover 500 meters in 3.5 minutes. This simple calculation method yields an arrival time with a margin of error of +/-30 seconds. Of course, I’m exaggerating (slightly), but punctuality is a big deal in Germany, and accurately stating when you will arrive is simply considered polite.

The German penchant for accuracy in weights and measures is also particularly evident when figures are cited in magazine and newspaper articles. From a German perspective, extremely accurate figures add color to the story and also underscore the thoroughness of the reporting. A recent article in Der Spiegel about the Mexican drug war, for example, begins by recounting a drug bust in which an undercover police officer was carrying “155 grams of heroin”. As this figure could be interpreted by American and British readers as gratuitously precise, in the English version of the article, it was simply changed by the translators at Der Spiegel to “150 grams of heroin.”

This modification of the German original is an excellent example of effective adaptation, as it places consideration for the reader above a slavish adherence to the content of the source text, which may not be effective in a different cultural space. The fact that the numbers themselves need to be changed when translating into English speaks to the level of adaptation that is occasionally required.

On a side note, the modification made to the article’s title is also illustrative: Originally titled “Hombre, du bist am Arsch” (“Hombre, you’re fucked”), the English version reads “El Paso Vice.” This demonstrates an additional principle of good translation: if the direct equivalent in English is weird or otherwise inappropriate, you should simply change it.


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).


“As” is an interesting word. Ever looked it up in the dictionary? Mine contains 43 different definitions for the term. “As” can be used in so many different contexts it almost eludes definition. Yet in its multipurpose utility, this tiny, seemingly irrelevant grammatical particle serves an essential linguistic function. As an adverb, conjunction, pronoun, or preposition, “as”  plays many roles, interlinking parts of speech and giving sentences form. One could describe it as the glue that holds the language together.

Needless to say, the German word “als” is not directly equivalent to its English counterpart. Like “as,” it is used as a comparative particle (diese Schuhe sind bequemer als die anderen) and conjunction (ich war froh, als sie endlich anriefen), but on the whole, it is used less frequently and has a much more restrictive range of use. However, “als” does take on a particular function that “as” lacks. The differences are subtle at first glance. Take the following sentence as an example: Die Beamten sind als Vetreter das öffentliche Gesicht der Verwaltung (“The officials are as representatives the public face of local government”). Here “als” is used to set up an equivalance between two things; the “officials” are in effect stated to be the equivelent of “representatives.” The direct English translation is acceptable and fairly clear, but rings a little bit strange. Why is this? In English, “as” is also used as a preposition to set up an equivalence, but this equivalence is a relative one, and usually does not have the 1:1 substitutional meaning found in many German constructions. For example: Der Auftragnehmer übernimmt die Aufbereitung am Standort X als technischer Betriebsführer für die Auftraggeberin als Betreiber (“The contracted party assumes responsibility for processing at location X as the technical manager for the contracting party as operator”). Translated directly, this sentence is somewhat confusing in English. What is meant by the “contracting party as operator”? “As” in English lacks the rigorous 1:1 substitutional equivalence implied by “als” in the German source sentence. A more readable translation would simply read: “for the contracting party, who is the operator.”

This is actually a fairly common problem when translating from German to English. An awareness for the non-compatability of “als” and “as” in certain contexts can help one to identify why the target sentence is not working and how it can be fixed.

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.”)

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.


The perceptive translator will notice that there are clear differences between the use of term “approximately” in German and English. Often abbreviated “ca.” (the term “circa” can be applied to all types of figures in German, not just to date estimations, as in English) “approximately” is used with much greater frequency in German texts. The proliferate and seemingly reflexive use of “ca.” in German is certainly related to the ease with which it can be inserted in front of any number, and perhaps also due to the pedantic focus on accuracy its use can convey (a German speciality). While the abbreviation “ca.” is often rendered annoyingly as “approx.” by translators (as if true allegiance to a source text is demonstrated with a superficial mimicry of its abbreviated forms), it is probably better to drop the term from the English text completely in many cases, particularly when its inclusion seems nonsensical, as in the following sentence I ran across recently: “In Baden-Württemberg wird die Luftqualität an derzeit ca. 41 Luftmessstationen regelmäßig überwacht.” So how many measurement stations are there? 41 and a half?

Here’s another good one, discussing a museum replica of President Kennedy’s Lincoln X-100: “Eine ganz besondere Einrichtung erlaubte es, den hinteren rechten Sitz um ca. 25 cm hydraulisch zu heben, um dem Präsidenten einen besseren Ausblick zu verschaffen.” Approximately 25 cm? Is the actual figure 25.3 cm? The translator should not feel obliged to slavingly transcribe this utterly useless insertion of “ca.”