The general vs. the specific

In this post I wanted to briefly touch upon a problem that I have frequently encountered when translating from German to English. I think the problem can be broadly subsumed under the heading “the general vs. the specific.”

As is the case with so many of the linguistic discrepancies one encounters when transcribing between languages — or at least those discrepancies that might be worth writing about — this one is hard to delineate precisely. Its contours are fuzzy, and elude precise demarcation. I will nonetheless try my best to provide a rough sketch of the problem.

Although German has many strengths as a language that English lacks, one conspicuous weakness — which may in fact be directly tied to these strengths — is the frequency with which one encounters imprecision in verb tense usage. With the exception of some differences — German for example, lacks the progressive tense (or, more precisely, the “progressive aspect”) — German and English essentially share the same range of opportunities for expression in relation to verb tense. Yet in the “living” German one encounters on a daily basis — particularly in spoken language — the prevailing patterns of usage are such that German refrains from assigning the same chronological specificity to events that would otherwise be called for in English. These patterns of usage are most certainly in part a product of the tendencies that result out of the structural characteristics of German grammar, for in the examples furnished below, possibilities for greater specificity in tense usage are possible, yet they are not used. This has certain ramifications. Let us turn first, however, to an example.

In general, the present tense gets used in German much more frequently than it does in English. In German, in fact, it is common to use the present tense to describe relationships when the future or past tense would invariably be used in English. Thus, in a German text describing how a planned building will look when it is completed at some future date, Germans typically end up writing in the present tense: “The corridors are 10 meters long.” Although one might well adopt the present tense in certain sentences when writing about the same subject in English, the “future, not yet existing” aspect of that which is being described would certainly be much more clearly demarcated for the reader through intermittent reversion to constructions employing the future tense.

Regardless of the ultimate reasons for the general tendency to revert to the simple present tense one so often encounters in German — Is it a product of sheer laziness? Of the unwieldiness of German grammar? Or perhaps of the broader trend, also evident in English, of written language becoming more like the spoken? — this tendency manifests itself in much more elusive guises than that provided in the example above. This brings me to the crux of my point: When translating from German, it can sometimes be quite unclear whether the writer intends a certain statement as a generally binding rule or rather as a specific observation solely applicable to the situation at hand.

An example: “Die Regulierungs- und Kartellbehörden bemängeln seit einiger Zeit unzureichenden Wettbewerb auf unterschiedlichen Wertschöpfungsstufen des Strommarktes. Dies kann auch den Netzausbau behindern.”

My translation: “Regulatory authorities have for some time criticized the lack of competition at various stages of the value creation chain in the electricity market. Insufficient competition may hinder investment in power grid expansion.”

Disregarding for the moment the omission of “auch” from the translation — “may also hinder” would simply be incorrect (I’ve have written here previously about the problems associated with “auch,” a devil of a word) — let us turn our attention to the second sentence.

Essentially, the second sentence appears to be a generally binding statement about the effects of insufficient competition, i.e. that it may hinder power grid investment. Yet in the text’s foregoing paragraphs, the discussion centered specifically on the lack of investment made in recent years. For this reason it would have been much more logical to formulate the second sentence with greater specificity, i.e. that lack of competition “may have led to date” to insufficient investment. However, the author instead chooses to make a broad statement about the consequences of insufficient competition in general; it is only implied that this has relevance in the current case.

This sentence illustrates the following tendency in German: one often encounters claims phrased in the simple present — thus denoting their general applicability — despite the fact the discussion may only warrant a claim with narrower specificity. Moreover, it may often be unclear whether the author intends the claim to be generally binding or more specific. As a result, it would appear to me that due to the conventions of German grammar, claims with a rather narrow specificity can easily assume a much broader applicability — perhaps even in the speaker’s own mind.

I in no way mean to imply that German grammar leads to illogical thoughts, but rather that German as a language lends itself far more readily to all-encompassing, generally binding claims. The Germans of course have a reputation for speaking in absolutes, in universalities. To what extent is this the product of the constraints and possibilities of German grammar?