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.

Renewable energy and bad compound nouns

Translating a text on renewable energy today I stumbled across the phrase “erneuerbare Energietechnologien,” a German term that has gained broad usage and which appears to be a direct translation of “renewable energy technologies.” It occurred to me, however, that the German version is actually quite strange, as it involves the formation of a compound noun between “energy” and “technologies.” The adjective “renewable” thus refers to the “technology.” Yet this is all wrong. The “technology” itself is not renewable, the “energy” is. In English, of course, “renewable energy” in this context is a compound modifier, and it could be hyphenated as “renewable-energy technologies.” We are talking about technologies that involve “renewable energy,” not “renewable technologies” that involve energy, as the German word formation implies.

For me, this is just another example of how creeping Anglicisms are destroying German. Wehrt Euch!


I just thought I’d take the opportunity to point out a false cognate I regularly run across – this time around, the error was committed by the English website of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment.

In discussing the organizational structure of the institute, the website refers to the “BfK Structure.” In German, of course, the term “Struktur” can be used designate to the way in which an institute or firm is organized; in English, however, the word “structure” alone is not sufficient, and a bit strange. “Organizational structure” is the term that’s needed.

The bourse

The term “bourse” (in English and French) or “börse” (in Geman) refers to an exchange where buyers and sellers of equities meet. The term owes its origin to the founder of an early stock exchange, the Flemish merchant Ter Beurze.

On the subject of stock exchanges, Bloomberg has an interesting article today on the decline of the New York Stock Exchange and its imminent merger with Deutsche Börse AG, as well as on the changes the stock market has undergone in recent years with the rise of electronic trading.

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