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.”

A convincing translation?

While translating a press release the other day I was again reminded that a translator must go about his work with an extremely sharp ear for nuances in meaning. Although two words may initially appear to occupy the same semiotic space, careful reflection often reveals subtle discrepancies in meaning that must be carefully negotiated. The English word “dog,” for example, may have the same designatory function as the German word “Hund,” but in many cases the range of semiotic overlap and/or divergence between apparent synonyms in two languages is not so clear cut (this overlap is known as “synonomy” in linguistics). Particularly startling is when words that have been treated as synonyms by translators and dictionaries suddenly reveal themselves as rather different in common contexts. German-English dictionaries, for example, invariably offer “convincing” as a translation for “überzeugend.” This translation, however, often strikes the native speaker of English as inappropriate, as testfied by the number of forum entries at LEO concerning this word.

“Compelling” is often a suitable alternative, but even this word fails to accurately recapitulate the meaning of “überzeugend” in many contexts. “Überzeugend” is often used to tout the high-quality of a product or service, a function that “compelling” and “convincing” do not usually take on in English. A free translation is called for in such cases, as others have recognized. This realization requires an inductive leap, however, so it’s understandable that many translators still resort to “convincing” for lack of a more inspired alternative.In any event, “convincing” must be regarded as an error in many contexts. Those with a sharp sense for linguistic nuance will quickly recognize that “convincing” is often used as a descriptor in situations when the veracity of a statement could be subject to question, as in “the words of President Bush were very convincing.” In this way, as “convincing” is often used to counteract doubts about a given fact or situation, it is loaded with a particular undercurrent of meaning, and is not equivalent to “überzeugend” in the sense of a wholesale endorsement of a product or service’s merits.

To return to the press release mentioned at the beginning of this post, the German text read as follows: “Die Firma … hat ein überzeugendes Zukunftskonzept erarbeitet.”If one were to translate this as “a convincing strategy for the future,” the English reader would be left wondering why it is necessary to affirm that the strategy is “convincing.” This is a clear pitfall for the unwary translator, as the German text wants to say something else entirely.My translation was: “The company has developed … a business strategy with a promising outlook for the future.”

A happy end(ing)

The German tendency to freely adopt English terms and expressions has been widely observed. Yet beyond the butchering of the German language that can often result from the wholesale borrowing of English expressions, the German-to-English translator is confronted by a particular challenge when required to “re-translate” expressions which are putatively English but which have been invested with new meaning in German. For example, what exactly are “Servicedienstleistungen” other than just “Dienstleistungen”: service-services, perhaps?

The German use of the term “dumping” can also be highly befuddling. In English, a company can be accused of engaging in “price dumping” when it sells its products at extremely low prices to undercut competitors – the products are, so to speak, “dumped” on the market. From this perspective, the German neologism “Lohndumping” sounds particularly incongruous for the native speaker of English because “wages” cannot be “dumped” in any figurative sense.

It’s also confusing when English terms are used in German texts for no apparent reason. In a PowerPoint presentation I recently translated for a large German IT provider, for example, one slide discussed the regrettable tendency of customers to use service hotlines unnecessarily. This was identified as the “Hello Joe Problem.” What was the motivation for the invention of this phrase? Considering I’ve never met anyone in Germany named “Joe,” the name choice is all the more inexplicable.  Should this perhaps have been translation into English as the “‘Hallo Klaus Problem”?

Another comical malapropism is the German use of the expression “happy end,” which 82 million Germans have confused with “happy ending.” In English, of course, one is said to have “met a happy end” when one dies, which lends the German use of the expression a particularly macabre ring. Were the makers of the “Happy End” toilet paper brand aware of this linguistic mix up?

Can’t computers do that now?

One question I often hear when telling people I’m a translator is:“Can’t computers do that now?” I find this question surprising, as it exhibits a disturbing lack of awareness for what a translator actually does. Although it may not be all too surprising to hear this perception voiced by someone who has never learned a foreign language, even those with a grasp of the difficulties that pervade language translation often contend that the hurdles are merely technical, and that sooner or later machine translation will reach maturity. Indeed, if a computer program can beat Kasparov at chess, why can’t we develop one to master the task of translation?

Google seems to think it can, and has been touting the positive results of its statistic-based approach to machine translation. Whereas previous attempts to write translation programs involved efforts by linguists to define rules for transcribing text from one language to another, Google has thrown its weight behind a different approach in which reams of text are fed into a computer for the development of probability based models. Although advances have been made with this approach, and computers are likely to close the gap on human translators in coming years, it seems doubtful that a computer will ever surmount all of the hurdles facing machine translation. An interesting article in The Atlantic highlights some of the basic problems faced by machine translation, such as variance in word order and grammatical structure between languages. Far more problematic for development of an accurate and reliable translation program, however, are the idiomatic and cultural properties of language.

The panacea of intercultural exchange envisioned by some is complicated by the fact that computers don’t understand that institutional and cultural environments often inform specific texts. Translation is an act of negotiation, and sometimes suitable equivalents for certain expressions or terms do not exist. Oftentimes, the translator must heavily modify the target text to arrive at an appropriate adaptation. Take the following sentence, for example: “Die Gebaeude im Bezirk sind zu über 80 Prozent von gründerzeitlicher Altbausubstanz geprägt.” The real problem here, of course, is the word gründerzeitlich, a term that has no equivalent in English. (Google’s translation software doesn’t event attempt to deal with it, yielding “The buildings in the district are more than 80 percent from gründerzeitliche houses marked substance.”)

German readers know that the Gründerzeit was an historical period that generated a specific architectural style in Germany and Austria. English-speaking readers lack this context. An effective translation of the above sentence would take this realization into account and perhaps offer a gloss. Here’s what I came up with: “Over 80% of the buildings in the district were originally constructed in the German architectural period known as the Gründerzeit (“founding epoch”).

This doesn’t seem all that complicated on the face of it, but it requires a certain sensitivity to intercultural contexts, something that a computer program running on probability models lacks. There is literally no way to arrive at the formulation “originally constructed inthe architectural period” without an act of interpretation and awareness for one’s reader.