Privatdozent in English

In H. L. Mencken’s piece “The National Letters” (1920), I find the following, as Mencken turns his attention to excoriating American literary critics: “When one comes to the Privat-Dozenten there is less remoteness, but what takes the place of it is almost as saddening. To Sherman and Percy Boynton the one aim of criticism seems to be the enforcement of correctness … .” The term Privatdozent, which is a type of professor, is used by Mencken here to refer to literary critics en masse.

This word choice is interesting. For the German reader, it is simultaneously out of place and a bit puzzling — somewhat like The New Yorker’s recent usage of the term “Anschluss,” which was defined by George Packer as “the German word for [annexation]” [1]. However, it does speak to the influence exerted by Germany’s intelligentsia, particularly prior to the Second World War.

Reading these lines, should the German native perhaps conclude that Privatdozent is an accepted term in the US, and one that can be freely used without translation? The answer is no; the fact that Mencken can’t get the spelling right is a testament to its rarity in English. (In a different essay, he persists in spelling it incorrectly as two words, but without a hyphen, i.e. “Privat Dozent.”) While the term is perhaps best rendered as “adjunct professor” in American English, the common abbreviation for the title — PD, as in “PD Dr. Hans Meier” — in no way sidesteps this translation problem. In English, of course, “PD” is the abbreviation for “pediatrician” (Kinderarzt). Accordingly, in the example just provided, PD should simply be omitted, and not just because it is misleading: in English, one almost never cites multiple titles prior to the name, as per the recommendations of virtually all style manuals, such as The Economist Style Guide.

1. Anschluss is used in German to refer exclusively to unification with Austria in 1938. The general word for “annexation” is Annexion.

Triadic headings

One issue in German-to-English translation that could provide ample fodder for reams of blog entries involves differences in the two languages’ formatting conventions. Many of the problems in this area are fairly straightforward; to cite an example: when writing a letter in the German-speaking world, one typically identifies the city where one is located next to the date at the top, as in the following letter from Leipzig:


This is not done in English-speaking countries, of course, meaning adaptation may be necessary in the translation process, depending on the translation’s purpose. Other formatting differences, however, are much more subtle, not least because they are less common. It takes great familiarity with both languages to recognize in certain instances why a source text is formatted in a specific way, whether or not the formatting is unique to German, and whether the adoption of this formatting in English is acceptable or at least justifiable.

This brings me to the title of the post (which is admittedly cryptic, but in my view apt). Headings that are composed of three elements separated by two dashes are not uncommon in German.


I think this type of heading — which essentially does not exist in English — is best referred to as a “triadic heading” (for lack of an alternative term). While triadic headings are often used as section titles in German magazine articles and academic papers, they are also frequently employed in subtitles for books, as in the above example.

The key question is, how should the subtitle “Edition — Übersetzung — Kommentar” be rendered in English? One could argue that the formatting with dashes should be retained in order to best reflect the original German title. Yet if one is going to translate the words contained in the title, why not translate the formatting as well? This approach seems particularly justified when one adopts a reader-oriented approach. The original title is completely normal for a German reader, so isn’t a translation incorrect on some level if it strikes the English-speaking reader as odd, because it fails to effectively transport the moment of communication between the text and reader, and the meanings the reader will perceive?

The more natural way to format an English subtitle of this nature would be to use commas instead of dashes, and, perhaps, to add an “and” before the final list item. A reader-oriented translation would thus be “Edition, Translation, and Commentary.” Overlooking for now the problems posed by “Edition,” I think this translation works well.

Reading the London Review of Books the other night, I noticed an interesting example of linguistic interference that touches directly upon this issue. A new book on the German dada artist Kurt Schwitters makes use of a triadic heading on its cover, yet with spaces separating the list items instead dashes. As this style of subtitle in English is a rarity, I am convinced it has its origins in the author’s experience in dealing with German primary sources and/or living in Germany.


Meanwhile, in the text description, commas instead of spaces are used to separate the list items (of course, one would never think of using dashes here in English). The book title thus falls within a grey zone between the conventions of German and English, and makes interesting food for thought. Perhaps non-adherence to any one domain of conventions can imbue a cultural object with a valuable dynamism? If so, should we not curb our knee-jerk tendency to reject everything that diverges from established syntax and/or formatting conventions as erroneous? Or is this “dynamism” actually an illusion, because it can only be appreciated by those familiar with both languages? From this latter perspective, bleed over from a foreign language is a mere reflection of “linguistic interference,” i.e. confusion in the mind of the author who can’t keep his or her languages straight.

Addendum: I do think three-item headings can work in English in advertising contexts when periods are used after each list element, e.g.: “Fresh. Alternative. Bold.” The use of dashes to separate the list items would certainly be odd, however.

False cognates (cont.)

False cognates — that is, words that appear similar between languages but actually have quite different meanings — are a major pitfall for the translator. The problems here are multifarious, for even when the translator has a keen ear and realizes that two seemingly congruent terms are not equivalent, there may be resistance on the part of the customer to “deviation” from the German — or, even worse, the feeling on the part of the translator that it is not worth opening up the veritable can of worms posed by such terms. The result is an attempt to fit square pegs in round holes, and a piss-poor translation.

False cognates lurk everywhere in texts, and are much more common than one would assume. In fact, I would argue that nearly all “accepted” terms in language dictionaries are false cognates on some level, as speakers of different languages almost always ascribe a different range of meaning to seemingly equivalent terms, even those that appear to be completely straightforward (i.e. “coffee”). One goal of this blog is to plumb the depths of the difference between German and English, in an attempt to solve some of the myriad problems that pervade effective translation between the two languages.

An interesting false cognate that I ran across today is the German term “Wissenskultur”, which is often translated as “knowledge culture”. These two terms have quite different meanings, however. The former is (typically) used in German to refer to “high culture”, that is, to the literary and cultural achievements of civilization. In English, however, the direct translation “knowledge culture” has a quite different meaning, and is typically used in the business sciences to designate the way a specific organization deals with and manages knowledge. Clearly, the non-equivalence between these two terms can generate major error in a translation, and the translator must go about his work with extreme care in order to avoid such pitfalls.

Incidentally, in my view “Wissenskultur” is best rendered in English as “knowledge society”. Use this recommendation with caution, however, as even here the terms are overlaid with different subtleties of meaning.