Non-standard terminology

Certainly most non-translators would be surprised at how often the translator encounters words in a foreign language for which there is no generally agreed upon translation. This is clearly one factor that severly limits the capabilities of translation software. Google Translate works by sifting mountains of reference translations. For standard terms in clearly formulated sentences, this sifting strategy can work quite well. As soon as non-standard terms crop up, however, Google Translate stumbles, not least due to the fact that many reference translations are of questionable quality or applicability. The problems of ambiguity that plague the task of translation are regularly apparent when one searches for hard-to-translate terms at online dictionaries like LEO or reference sources such as the EU’s database of legal translations.

I confront terms for which there is no preexisting entry at LEO or clearly understandable direct equivalent in English nearly every day. Here are a few:

  • tiefenstufenabhängige Baumdurchwurzelungsstrategien (soil-depth-dependant tree rooting strategies)
  • Holzhackschnitzelheizkraftwerk (combined heat and power plant that runs on wood chips; try to say that one three times fast)
  • Kommunikationsaufforderungsakte (acts by which one prompts another to communicate)
  • Verfüllkörper (the body of backfilled material within a revegetated strip mine)
  • Legalitätszentriert (adjective indicating a focus on aspects of legality; literally, “legality-centered”)
  • Nachverhandlungsanfälligkeiten (noun designating things which are subject to future negotiation)
  • Rovingsgelege (I forgot what this is; something to do with repair of wind turbine rotors)
  • Granulatmusterzugschublade (component in a roller compactor for the manufacture of pharmaceutical products)
  • Ver- und Entsorgungsmedia (funny compound in German designating “media” for both “supply” and “disposal” – a highly ambiguous term when translated directly)Note that none of these terms (except for Holzhackschnitzelheizkraftwerk) yields even a single hit at Google. So how does Google Translate handle them? Well, it doesn’t.

German parenthetical inserts

In German and English, parenthetical inserts are used to provide additional, clarifying information or examples in cases in which a freestanding sentence would be inappropiate. However, there are often marked differences between the usage of parenthesis in German and English, particularly when it comes to the enumeration of examples. While parenthetical examples in English are typically of a substitutional nature or extend naturally as a subclause of the main sentence, in German one often finds examples that are not directly substitutional, in which the precise relationship to the main sentence must be deduced. Although this sort of parenthenthetical insert can be considered poor style in German, one encounters it with great frequency.

The following sentences are not atypical in German and demonstrate the point quite well:

German: “Abschließend gehen wir auch davon aus, dass sich Deutschlands Ausgaben für multilaterale Entwicklungsprogramme zugunsten Afghanistans (UNO, NATO, EU, Weltbank) erhöht haben.

English translation: “Finally, we assume that Germany’s expenditures for multilateral development programs that benefit Afghanistan (UN, NATO, EU, World Bank) have increased.”

German: “Am Arbeitsmarkt muss alles dafür getan werden, dass die günstige Arbeitsmarktentwicklung nicht durch neue Regulierung (Zeitarbeit, Mindestlöhne) gefährdet wird.

English: “Everything must be done to ensure that the favorable development of the labor market is not endangered by new regulations (temporary work, minimum wages).”

As one can see from the sample sentences above, the items listed in paranthensis are examples, yet the precise relation to the remaining sentence is simply not clear-cut. In the first sentence, of course, one would assume initially that examples of “multilateral development programs” are being enumerated – until one realizes that these are in fact organizations that would administer such programs. For this reason, the translation above certainly violates standards of usage in English.

Similarly, in the second sentence, the items stated in parenthesis would appear at first to be examples of regulations – but they are, more precisely, examples of areas in which regulations might be instituted.

In both cases, a few small adjustments suffice to remedy the stiltedness of the direct translations above.

“Finally, we assume that Germany’s expenditures for multilateral development programs that benefit Afghanistan (such as those administered by NATO, the UN, EU, World Bank, etc.) have increased.”

English: “Everything must be done to ensure that the favorable development of the labor market is not endangered by new regulations (e.g. concerning temporary work, minimum wages).”

The larger point illustrated by these examples is that there are unavoidable structural discrepencies between German and English. Clearly, the translator must play a proactive role in filtering and reshaping the contents of the source text in order to arrive at an adequate and readable translation. Rote word-for-word translations cannot be charaterized as “faithful” if they dishonor the intended meaning of the source text, disregarding the ways in which the reader will process the presented information.