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.)

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