Square pegs, round holes

Two common terms in German energy economics merit closer consideration, as they are a frequent source of difficulty when translating into English:

Schiffsverkehr: “Shipping” is the overarching term used by European economists when referring to the emissions produced by freight and passenger waterborne transport. However, in US English, the term “shipping” can have a sharply divergent meaning, referring instead to all manner of “freight transport”. In a recent New York Times article, for example, “shipping” is used to refer exclusively to “truck-borne freight.” Elsewhere, the term is used to refer to “rail freight” (see e.g. US Poised to Approve Shipping LNG by Rail). Accordingly, the US Department of Energy uses the term “Water” to refer to emissions from maritime and fluvial transport.

In British English, by contrast, “shipping” clearly refers to waterborne transport, which supports the notion that one should simply stick to “shipping” as a translation for Schiffsverkehr. While I would generally agree, one still needs to be wary of and preempt potential misinterpretation by US natives, as use of the term “shipping” without further specification most readily implies “freight logistics”.

Gebäudesektor: This is another term used to categorize emissions by source. The biggest problem here is that English native speakers will generally understand “building sector” to refer to the “real estate construction industry”. While use of the plural — i.e. “buildings sector” — can help one to avoid this misreading, the potential for misinterpretation still exists. The crux of this problem is that Anglos generally allocate emissions from “buildings” either to the “residential” or “commercial” sectors; the energy emissions “pie”, as it were, is simply carved up differently. By way of example, the Scottish plan for energy efficient retrofitting only makes use of the term “buildings” in one instance (!) — namely, to refer to EU policy measures. Certainly in part because “houses” are not usually referred to as “buildings”, Scottish policy document speaks instead of “sustainable housing”. Incidentally, emissions from commercial buildings are completely ignored. Is this oversight perhaps attributable to the categorical railroading of the English language? An interesting question. In any event, from a German perspective, the following campaign ad from the Scottish National Party is totally incoherent. Homes and buildings?

There are no easy solutions to these problems. It is for precisely this reason that translation is often referred to as the “art of the best possible failure.”