Parenthetical inserts

In this post, I would like to discuss a crucial point of difference between English and German parenthesis usage that has been a source of error in thousands of translations. Incredibly, this incongruity between German and English is almost never handled correctly by translators, even skilled ones; I have literally never seen a capable translation at a website, museum exhibit, or elsewhere that fails to stumble when confronting this issue.

In German, one use of parentheses is to indicate dual states – that is, to denote two discrete but mutually applicable states or conditions. Let me provide a few examples, using direct translations from the German: “Our paper estimates cost trends for (fossil) fuels.” This sentence means to say: “Our paper estimates cost trends, for both fossil and non-fossil fuels.” Here is another example: “In coming years, German will expand its (smart) grid infrastructure.” This sentence means to say: “German will expand its grid infrastructure in the coming years; some of this expansion will take the form of smart grids.”

In English, by contrast, the parentheses are normally used in this manner indicate an additional aspect that is “technically” or “incidentally” true. Furthermore, English parentheses are never used to indicate dual states (except in some limited domains influenced by rote translations from the German – that is, by Germanized English – such as philosophy). A native English speaker, for example, would understand the second sentence to mean: “In the coming years, German will expand its grid infrastructure; technically speaking, all of this infrastructure expansion will take the form of smart grids.” This is a drastically different meaning from that intended by the original German. Indeed, the direct rendering of the German parentheses will almost always yield a decidedly incorrect translation. And yet this error is made again and again – in fact, translators almost never fail to commit it – as to resolve it involves not only recognizing the problem (which is difficult) but also interpreting the text correctly (another difficult feat) and editorializing (which most translators – a generally timid species – are loath to do).

To further illustrate this point, here is good example of natural English parenthesis usage: “Uber Spinning Out of Control: Employees Eyeing Exits as Press (Finally) Starts to Question Business Model.” The information in parentheses is a supplemental aspect of the verb “starts”; it does not attempt to describe two equally valid states.

The moral of the story? Arriving at a correct and readable translation not only requires an extremely good understanding of German and English, but also an ability and willingness to interpret the source material and engage in editorial intervention.

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