Category Archives: translation

Linguistic interference and those pesky private households

“Linguistic interference” refers to when speakers of one language apply knowledge from a second, with occasionally strange results.

An interesting example of linguistic interference that I often see in English texts written by German natives was on display in an interview given by the economist Heiner Flassbeck of Hamburg University for Real News Network: Flassbeck refers at one point to “private households,” a direct translation of “private Haushalte.” This error is quite common: The descriptor “private” is wholly superfluous, as “households” are always “private” in English (“public households” do not exist, as they do in German).

Yet there are additional examples of linguistic interference in the interview. The title of the interview itself seems to have been selected by Flassbeck, as the article and gerund use in “Systemic Malfunctioning of the Labor and Financial Markets” is slightly off. Rephasing is needed; the best title is probably “Systematic Malfunction in Labor and Financial Markets”. Also good: “The Systemic Malfunction of Labor and Financial Markets.”

In addition, at the beginning of the interview, an awkward translation for Flassbeck’s book is offered: “Act Now! The Global Manifesto for Economic Policy.” Although the phrasing in German is “Das Manifesto,” a direct translation here is slightly stilted. The English title should read “A Global Manifesto for Economic Policy.”

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.

Codified error and Trennbankensysteme

One of the most surprising phenomena in the world of translation that I encounter with great frequency is the tendency for clearly incorrect translations of certain terms to become accepted and widely used as standard terminology. This phenomenon is certainly attributable in part to native speakers of German translating into English. Yet indolence and timidity of many translators must also play a large role. To provide an example: The accepted translation for “Trennbankensystem” at LEO and in other specialized dictionaries is “separate banking system.” This translation really raises my hackles, as it is completely incorrect. The term “Trennbankensystem” refers to the separation that previously existed in the US between between commercial and investment banks, as per the requirements of Glass-Steagall. The German term thus refers expressly to circumstances in the United States, which should make the identification of a good translation an easy task. The accepted terms in English for this separation are “dual banking system” and “two-tiered banking system”, but not “separate banking system,” which almost seems to refer to some sort of “secondary” or “shadow” banking sector. The term is thus not only incorrect, but highly misleading. Nevertheless, it is found in all online dictionaries that contain a entry for the term, and has been used faithfully by translators in innumerable documents. It really is a sad state of affairs.

This is by no mean an isolated example. Consistent mistranslation – or “codified error,” as I like to call it – is extremely common: In the area of finance, for example, I often see the English term “participations” used as a translation for “Beteiligungen”, which is just about as correct as Arnold Schwarzenegger talking about the “advices” he gives to Franco Columbu. The correct way phrase this, of course, it to speak of an “ownership stake” or “holdings” in a company. “Participation” for describing investment interest can work, but should almost always be kept singular.

Dynamic adaptation

“Dynamic adaptation” is one way of referring to the various modifications and adjustments that are required when translating from one language to another in order to assure a clear and readable target text. It means taking a proactive approach to the translation process by actively searching for modes of expression in the target language that are effective for conveying the content of the original document. Often, to create a readable English translation massive modification is required, as equivalents for the German terms and phrases simply don’t exist. In many instances, the lack of equivalents is attributable to institutional differences, as in the following example:

“[Mit einem Minijob vermeiden sie] die hohe implizite Besteuerung durch das Ehegattensplitting und die beitragsfreie Mitversicherung in der gesetzlichen Krankenversicherung.”

This sentence describes labor market and tax regulations in Germany that don’t have direct correlates in the US or UK. The difficulties in translating this sentence are actually two-fold: While there are in fact weakly established translations for a few of the terms in the sentence, these “translations” are to some extent completely useless, for the reader, lacking knowledge of the circumstances that prevail in Germany, will simply not understand the “English” terms. The only solution, therefore, is to go about the translation in a way that explains the situation to the reader. This problem is posed in particular by “Ehegattensplitting”. While a direct translation might be “spouse splitting,” we should perhaps avoid implying that the Germans are running a government-subsidized “wife swapping” program. My translation thus includes a gloss: “… the high implicit taxes resulting from the ‘splitting rule’ (which allows spouses to pool and equally divide their income to determine tax liability) ….”

Yet the more crucial problem that emerges in this sentence – and the actual crux of my point – relates to the dynamic transformation that is needed to convert the phrasing “die beitragsfreie Mitversicherung in der gesetzlichen Krankenversicherung” into acceptable English. The outcome of a word-for-word translation is completely unintelligible: “the contribution-free co-insurance in the statutory health insurance.” The term “co-insurance” – apparently an accepted translation for “Mitversicherung” – is laughably bad, as it is totally misleading. Massive conversion is needed to arrive at a coherent English phrase. Here is one possible way to word the idea being presented: “tax-free extension of government insurance coverage held by a working partner to his or her spouse.”

If the goal is to produce an understandable and correct English text, this sort of adaptation is actually required in nearly every sentence that ones translates, demonstrating that translation is much less a form of transcription than actually a reinventing of the source text’s ideas to accommodate the possibilities and restrictions of a radically different system of words and sempahore. The individual words hardly correspond at all – because words are tangential to ideas, which tend to reside in phrases, and not just individual particles.

Im Spannungsfeld

Of the many German terms that are difficult to render in accurate but digestible English, “im Spannungsfeld” is certainly one, perhaps not least because it is a highfalutin term that is often used in an ambiguous manner. Indeed, how is the translator to generate a good text in English when the German may read well at first glance but is actually quite unclear, evincing shortcomings that may only become apparent when the translator scratches beneath the surface in an attempt to distill the author’s intentions. The blurry line between a meaningful assertion of ideas and the hollow rhetorical flourish becomes all too apparent at times like these. The perennial question thus looms large: What is the translator’s role? If the German version makes a professional impression rhetorically, but ultimately suffers from substantive weakness, isn’t it the translator’s remit to produce a text that can at least be taken seriously when read superficially? For it is certainly possible to tart up bad content for a day at the circus, and this is preferable to bad content written poorly.

To the crux of the matter: Most of the translations offered for “im Spannungsfeld der …” at LEO and in other dictionaries are quite hopeless. While it is actually not uncommon to see nonsense become an accepted standard for the translation of various German terms, the bumbling of others is particularly conspicuous in this case because there is great solution that frequently works well: namely, the phrase “(stands) at the intersection of …”.

German academic titles in English

German usage of academic titles is often troublesome for the translator. Clearly, titles are used in German texts in many contexts in which they would be omitted in English. In the English-speaking world, of course, there is the perception that titles should be used sparingly, for they can rub the wrong way. Depending on the context, readers may view titles as a pretentious effort to impress, perhaps because of a need to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. This cultural perception places the translator in a bind, for when German customers are not familiar with title-usage conventions in the English-speaking world, they may view the removal of titles from a translation when they are not appropriate as an affront. Yet simply retaining titles in English as a strategy for circumventing this problem is actually no solution at all, as it may weaken the text, and, by extension, ill serve the customer. In my view, the best solution is to try and educate customers about proper title usage in English.

One resource to draw on in this regard is the Economist Manual of Style, which recommends never using the “Dr.” title in a body text in English, except for medical doctors. Amusingly, the Style Guide takes a direct shot at German title usage, stating that some titles are “tiresomely long (Mr Dr Dr Federal Sanitary-Inspector Schmidt)”.

Another strategy for educating customers is to draw attention to actual usage in prominent English publications. In Scientific American, for example, the “Prof.” and “Dr.” titles are rarely used, even when referring to high-ranking academics. Instead, the typical approach is to simply cite the individual’s field and university affiliation (i.e. “physicist Niels Bohr of the University of Copenhagen says” and not “Nobel Prize Winner Prof. Dr. Dr. Niels Bohr says” ).

To cite an example: In a recent article in Scientific American about Ewan Birney, a full professor and physicist at the University of Cambridge, no mention is made of his academic laurels. Instead, the article adopts the physicist’s own self-deprecating title “cat herder in chief”. I think this is a telling example of perceptual differences between the German and English speaking worlds when it comes to title usage.

Ludicrous homonym phrases

German: Wenn hinter Fliegen Fliegen fliegen, fliegen Fliegen Fliegen nach

French: Si six scies scient six cyprès, six cents six scies scient six cent six cyprès

Russian: Косил косой косой косой

English: James, while John had had “had”, had had “had had”; “had had” had had a better effect on the teacher.


Shī Shì shí shī shǐ

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

Deutsche Sachlichkeit

Just ran across this great German word for “snack”: Zwischenverpflegungsangebot. An approximate back translation would perhaps be: “Interim meal offering”.

It perfectly illustrates the “hard literalism” that so often characterizes German terms and is also needlessly complicated. As Maurice Moss would say: “Brilliant!”

The eurozone and German “control”

In Austria there is a funny sign on the freeway labelled “Section Control” that alerts drivers to an upcoming speed trap. While one has to wonder at the usefulness of such a sign (as it provides speeders with ample time to slow down), it is hard to restrain a chuckle at the phrasing “Section Control,” which is incorrect English and clearly based on a common false cognate the employees of the Austrian Ministry for Transport were unaware of prior to manufacturing all these signs.


Despite the common etymology of “Kontrolle” and “control”, there are crucial differences between the two terms. “Kontrolle” means “supervision” or “monitoring”, but not “control” in the sense of “to direct”, “to manipulate” or “to hold sway over”. Thus, a correct (direct) translation of the German term for speed monitoring (Abschnittskontrolle) would have been “Section Check” or “Section Monitoring”, but not “Section Control”. The British, of course, refer to such systems as “SPECS”, or “Speed Check Services”.

While some foreign drivers may – upon seeing this sign – incorrectly come to the conclusion that the Austrians have devised a system for taking over the control of vehicles remotely, the error is not that grievous in the end, as the picture of the camera on the sign makes the meaning more or less clear. In other contexts, however, the false cognate of “Kontrolle” and “control” is more pernicious.

In current debates surrounding the future of the euro the Germans are often criticized for their emphasis on the need to institute new regulatory frameworks, rather than a system for joint liability in the event of sovereign default. One pillar of the German proposals is to establish better systems for the supervision of finances in individual member states. Note the operative term here: “supervision”, not “control”. Yet due to the “Kontrolle/control” false cognate, the Germans are often incorrectly understood as calling for greater EU “control” in the sense of “direct managerial powers” (and not just “monitoring capabilities”).

In an article that appeared this morning in Bloomberg, for example, Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted as saying the following: “There must not be an imbalance between liability and control”. What she actually means, of course, is that there must not be a discrepancy between “liability” and “supervision”. Admittedly, supervision inherently implies some degree of control (insofar as it could lead to, say, sanctions against member states), yet the thrust of her statements has a completely different flavor when her words are mistranslated in this manner. This “false reading” plays all too easily into the hands of those who might wish to portray the Germans in clichéed terms as bent on “dominating” the eurozone. It is an unfortunate false cognate.