Category Archives: translation pitfalls

Impenetrability in translation

A perennial question in the field of translation concerns to what extent the translator should play an active role in intepreting the source text. In many instances, minor acts of intepretation are simply necessary in order to provide an accurate translation. For example, the present tense (einfaches Präsenz) can be used in German to refer to either present or future states. A press release in German, for instance, might begin with Firma X launcht neues Dingsbums (“Company X Launches New Widget”) even when the product in question has not yet been released. While the English translation above (also in present tense) would only work if the widget had been or was on the verge of being released, in German the launch might be scheduled for 5 weeks from now. Thus, the translator needs to assess the context at hand and make a decision about whether the present or future tense is needed in English. Interpretation is unavoidable.

This is a fairly straight-forward example of the problem, however, as the translator’s mission is clear. At the other end of the spectrum, when the source text is more complex and ambiguous, one can spend hours pondering just a few words and how they should be best composed. One learns that sometimes even a great translation is indecipherable when the source text itself eludes a clear reading.

Take, for example, the following paragraph, which came from a philosophical text that I recently translated:

So kann bereits der Bezug auf einen anderen Menschen ein „Mehr“ und ein „Darüber hinaus“ bedeuten, in dem ich mich selbst überschreite, ebenso das Transzendieren einer konkreten Situation, eines gesellschaftlichen status quo. Deshalb bedarf es des Begriffs des Unbedingten, um der Falle der „schlechten Unendlichkeit“ zu entkommen. Er bezeichnet nämlich sowohl einen grundlosen, selbst nicht mehr von einem anderen bedingten Grund alles Bedingten als dessen Möglichkeitsbedingung als auch das Vollkommene.

The last sentence here is fairly out of control. Although I feel confident that my English translation accurately recapitulates the constellation of signs established by the author in her sentence, it remains impenetrable (to my puny mind, at least):

“Specifically, the concept of the unconditional designates both a basis for everything conditional which is itself without basis and not conditional on another basis as the condition of possibility for everything conditional, as well as the ‘perfect’ (Vollkommene).”

On the other hand, this is perhaps not the best example of the “interpretational duty” placed on the translator, as the sentence, despite its complexity, can be “effectively” translated. In between the two examples provided in this blog post there is a myriad range of translation problems that involve deciding how much one can and should deviate from and/or interpret the (apparent) meaning of the source text. What is the text’s message? The translator is invariably a major determinant in shaping the reader’s “take away.” There is no way around this problem, as the issue concerns the inherent non-compatability of linguistic systems and the translator’s position as a mediator and referee.

As

“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.