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.

One thought on “When is precision excessive?”

  1. How interesting! I never realized it could sound pedantic when I use (more or less) precise numbers when stating the time I’ll arrive somewhere. In hindsight, I think it always irritates me when people are stating the time they need to meet me incorrectly (meaning here: 10 or more minutes off) (OK let’s be honest: 5 or more minutes off). Since I live in an international environment, this happens quite a lot.

    By the way, “Hombre, du bist am Arsch!” sounds more than weird and highly inappropriate to my German ears as well. I wouldn’t expect to read it in a magazine title at all. But maybe that’s just me?

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