German lists

Today I wanted to share a few thoughts about German lists – the scourge of the German-to-English translator. Germans have a great fondness for lists. And, due to the machine-like precision of German grammatical constructions, lists can take on bewildering forms (read: ineinandergeschachtelte Formen). Many lists simply defy a 1:1 translation. For this reason, the astute translator must look beyond the words on the page to arrive at context-based adaptation that does its best to honor the contents of the source text.

Take a look at the following list: “Darüber hinaus [umfasst das Portfolio] aber auch alle relevanten Spezialbereiche wie Gebäudeautomation, Förder-, Licht-, Kommunikations- und Sicherheitstechnik bis zu Alternativtechnologien und regenerativen Energien, die zunehmend an Bedeutung gewinnen.” The extended compound construction in the middle of the sentence (i.e. “Förder-, Licht-, Kommunikations- und Sicherheitstechnik”) simply cannot be translated directly into English; English grammar does not allow for this type of formulation. This does not mean, however, that the sentence cannot be translated. Heavy modification (or “re-building,” as I like to call it) is simply required.

Let’s take a look at how another translator handled this sentence, to get a better idea of what one should avoid doing: “In addition, however, also all relevant special aspects such as building automation, conveying, lighting, communications and safety engineering through to alternative technologies and regenerative energy, which are gaining in importance.” First of all, this is an incomplete sentence. Although German marketing texts often contain sentences which would be considered incomplete in English, the implied subject and verb of the original construction (i.e. “the portfolio comprises”) must be integrated into the English translation. Second, the translator’s rendering of the word “relevant” – a false cognate – is inappropriate. The best solution is to drop the term, as all possible approximations only worsen the sentence. Turning to the translator’s handling of the listed items, one is at first struck by the disjointed phrasing: “conveying” as an “aspect” of the portfolio? “Communications engineering”? The word choice is not only problematic here, the cadence of the sentence is an affront to the reader.

Here’s my revised version: “Yet the company also provides specialized services for building automation, communication and safety systems, lighting, and conveyer applications – in addition to planning services for regenerative- and alternative-energy technologies, an area of increasing importance.” Several changes were necessary here: first of all, it was essential to escape the source text’s definition of the listed items as “areas” within the portfolio (this was the key change, and is an important strategy for dealing with lists of this nature). The various items are instead viewed as “services,” which adds more flexibility to the range of terminology that can be used. Second, it was necessary to abandon the utterly non-translatable compound construction “Förder-, Licht-, Kommunikations- und Sicherheitstechnik.” Intelligent rephrasing was required here. Third, with regard to the flow of the sentence, it proved helpful to simply reorganize the listed items. This is another important strategy for dealing with German lists (some might raise objection to this approach by rightfully pointing out that the order of listed items can have bearing on the relative importance attached to them. In English, however, this is only true in exceptional circumstances, and certainly not in the present example).

Considering the massive reformulation of the source text that was required to arrive at a clear English sentence, one is impressed here by the degree to which translation can become an act of interpretation. Clearly, the translator must take an active role in re-structuring the source text for the sake of the reader. From this perspective, “accuracy” in translation is a highly subjective idea; a translation is only “faithful” as a function of the interpretative creativity and skill of the translator, not in its fidelity to the purported inviolability of the signifiers in the source text.

(Readers have rightfully pointed out that the translation of English lists into German is beset by its own unique problems. This post does not mean to imply that German is somehow unique with regard to the difficulties involved in the translation of listed items.)

Proper names that aren’t so proper

There’s a gym near our apartment in Berlin that advertises itself as a “health and fitness club” on a sign above the main entrance. I walked past the gym regularly for weeks and always thought to myself, “Now, what’s the actual name of this place? They should display the name more prominently.” This morning my patience was finally exhausted. Determined to identify the gym’s name, I stopped to inspect the sign and peer through the windows. Lo and behold: the place is simply called “Health and Fitness Club.”

Proper names based on everyday English words are actually not that rare in Germany, and I find them to be highly annoying. In Stuttgart, for example, there’s a company called “Financial Consulting,” a business name you could never actual register in the U.S., because it fails to identify the business uniquely. (I can just imagine the founder filling out the registration papers: Name of business? Financial consulting. Type of business? Financial consulting…).

Grading systems

In recent weeks I’ve been confronted numerous times by a special translation problem which I suspect may be unique to German-English translation. The problem concerns the translation of German grades into English, or, more specifically, the difficulty in arriving at appropriate and honest translations when mediating between the divergent conventions of the American and German grading systems. In the U.S., of course, the standard grading scale is usually: A=excellent, B=very good/good, C=satisfactory, D=poor, and F=fail. In Germany, by contrast, a numerical scale is used, with the following rankings: 1=sehr gut (very good), 2=gut (good), 3=befriedigend (satisfactory), 4=ausreichend (sufficient), 5=mangelhaft (deficient), 6=ungenügend (insufficient).

It’s interesting to note the clear discrepancy at the top of the scale: the best possible mark in Germany is “very good,” a grade which is a notch below best in the U.S. While the remaining differences don’t seem excessive at first glance, real complications arise when one goes about translating German “report cards” into English, particularly into US English (interestingly enough, it’s actually much easier to translate German grades into British English, a topic which I’ll leave aside for now). The problem is two-dimensional: on the one hand, due to so-called “grade inflation” in the US, anything below an A-average is less than spectacular, and certainly doesn’t earn you a scholarship. Yet at the same time, Germans have a tendency to be extremely reserved in their praise, which is reflected in the relative greater difficulty of achieving a top mark in German courses, as well as in the peak grade designation of “very good” (in contrast to “excellent”).

On a practical level, this means that a German report card that consists solely of “2s” (or “straight Bs”) – certainly a respectable performance in Germany – can come across as somewhat mediocre in the U.S. As a result, the translator is placed in a bind, and must reconcile two sets of opposing loyalties – the first: to the source text, and to the faithful transcription of its contents; and the second: to the context of the linguistic encounter, to the meaning and interpretations which will be received by the reader. One possible method of resolving this issue – to leave the grades untranslated – is, in my view, no solution at all, because it fails to provide the reader with a perspective on the student’s academic performance. The translator’s job is to filter meaning, not to obfuscate it. Considering the inadequacies of a 1:1 translation, the best solution here – and one that I have employed several times in the past – is to retain the German numerical grade, but to append it with a slightly more laudatory description than a direct translation would otherwise permit. Thus, for example, “2 (gut)” is rendered as 2 (”very good”), and “1 (sehr gut)” is translated as “1 (excellent).” Some translators might raise objection to this “context-based” or “interpretive” approach to resolving the issue, and insist that the translator has overstepped his bounds with such a solution, yet I’m convinced of its merits. A translation cannot be viewed as “faithful” if it ultimately does a disservice to the meaning that lies behind the text.