On examples

The translator’s job is to resolve problems – to smooth out incongruities between languages, to bridge the gap between linguistic systems. Translation can be a highly frustrating endeavor – a seemingly Sisyphean task, at times – yet the translator can also relish a sense of satisfaction when things “work” – when, by dint of luck or skill, it’s possible to render a translation that is both highly true to the original text and eminently readable.

In translation, however, very few things “work” automatically. Any translator who takes his job seriously will admit to occasionally spending up to a half-hour or more on the translation of a single sentence. While this time expenditure can often be attributed to the incontrovertibility of specific terms or idioms, in many instances – and herein lies the rub – the grammatical conventions of the source text simply preclude its direct adaptation.

Take, for instance, the way in which the expression “for example” (zum Beispiel or z.B.) can be employed in German. Linguistically, “for example” is used to introduce an object or concept representative of a given category or group. In English, if this overarching class or group is not specifically defined, it is almost always clearly implied. Interestingly, in German texts “for example” is sometimes used in situations when the larger subsuming class is left unintroduced. Take the following sentence: “Durch intelligente Systemintegration erreichen Sie beispielsweise eine verlässliche Anbindung an Ihr Warenwirtschaftssystem.” A direct translation: “Thanks to intelligent system integration you’re provided with a reliable connection to your inventory management system, for example.” Some translators would also likely opt for the following rendering: “Thanks to intelligent system integration you’re provided, e.g. with a reliable connection to your inventory management system.” Both translations ring false because of a divergence in conventions governing the use of the expression “for example.” In the first version it is unclear what is being cited as an example, the “system integration” or the “management system.” The second version is simply incorrect. If the source sentence had been originally formulated in English at least tacit reference would have been made to the overarching category under which the example falls. Here’s a possible alternate translation: “Thanks to intelligent system integration you’re provided with a number of benefits, such as a reliable connection to your inventory management system.” The interesting point here is that the translation of the text in a manner that adheres to normal conventions for the presentation of information in English is only possible through an act of interpretation and the inclusion of inferred information. Essentially, the incompatibility of German and English with regard to the use of “for example” in this instance necessitates the reformulation of the source text.

Here’s another interesting case of “for example” used in German in the absence of a clear category: “15 Partneragenturen repräsentieren Werbeagentur X in 15 Ländern exklusiv mit Schwerpunkt in Europa. In enger Zusammenarbeit entstehen beispielsweise Kampagnen, die länderübergreifend erfolgreich sind” (”Fifteen partnering agencies exclusively represent Ad Agency X in 15 different countries, with a focus on Europe. In close cooperation, for example, successful transnational campaigns are created.”) Translated directly the second sentence is fairly unintelligible, and is also grammatically incorrect. What is being cited as an example here? The “cooperation” or the “campaigns”? In German, the relationship is quite clear – essentially, the agencies work closely together to produce lots of great stuff; one example of the great stuff they produce is successful campaigns – yet the German sentence eludes direct translation into English. A context-based approach was finally taken here, yielding the following translation: “Fifteen partnering agencies exclusively represent Ad Agency X in 15 different countries, with a focus on Europe. Successful transnational campaigns are developed in close-coordination with these partners.”

In the above sentence the best course of action was to simply drop “for example.” The alternative would have been to invent an introductory clause to properly transition to the example cited. Some might object to the liberties taken with the source text, yet I would contend that in this particular case “for example” had been inserted reflexively by the author and ultimately didn’t hold much meaning. (The listing of one example implies that there are other examples which could be cited – but in this specific text there was literally nothing of relevance which could been listed alongside “successful campaigns.”)

On a semiotic level, a host of expressions – such as “beispielwiese,” “auch,” and “etwa” – can be easily employed in German to allude to further examples of that which is specifically addressed. In the process, sentences are created which are inadmissible on a structural level in English. I hope to discuss this topic in greater detail in an upcoming post.

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