All posts by L. Sewell

Abrupt examples

While the quality of machine translation (MT) has improved significantly in recent years, advanced MT tools such as DEEPL still fail to arrive at effective solutions for a wide range of translation problems. Most frequently, MT runs aground when the development of a viable solution requires not only an awareness for the broader context of the discussion (viz. the “big picture”), but also judicious and creative editorial decision-making to resolve linguistic incompatibilities. The divergent usage practices that prevail in German and English when enumerating examples provide a vivid demonstration of this fact. Far from being rare or obscure, the problems that can emerge in this regard are exceedingly common and conspicuous. Nevertheless, they are also highly irregular and context-dependent, and have subtle gradations of severity. These attributes make it exceedingly difficult to describe and subsume this “problem nexus” under a unified and precise definition.

I previously touched upon this translation issue in a blog post I wrote back in 2009. However, that post merely cited an example of the problem, without seeking to define its contours or point to potential solutions, a deficit that I hope to remedy here. The nub of the problem is this: German prose has a tendency to introduce examples in a manner that seems excessively abrupt within the context of a direct translation. Most typically, the problem lies at the level of composition, or proper sentence flow: the faithful rendering of the elements of the German sentence leads to the formation of “example lists” or “enumerative subclauses” that strike the reader as highly disjointed, excessively stilted, or simply incompatible with acceptable usage.

Let us turn to a specific example:

Carbon uptake depends on e.g. local flora, the terrain type, climate zone, and land management practices.

Here, the sudden transition to examples using “e.g.” is very characteristic of German prose. While this English sentence could certainly be viable if the sentences that immediately preceded it cited the category to which the examples belong, either explicitly or implicitly, this information was completely absent in the original discussion. Usually, the best solution when confronting “abrupt examples” of this nature is to specifically state the overarching category from which the examples stem, even if this category is very general, as in the following revised sentence, which deploys “including” as a solution for a smoother segue.

Carbon uptake depends on various factors, including local flora, the terrain type, climate zone, and land management practices.

Let us look at another overly abrupt transition to examples in the absence of an explicit category.

Individuals can offset residual emissions through e.g. CDR projects.

Native speakers of English will agree without hesitation that this transition using “e.g.” is stilted. Based on the broader context (which I will omit here), the easiest solution to this real-world example was to introduce “voluntary contributions” as the broader category.

Individuals can offset residual emissions through voluntary contributions (e.g. to CDR projects).

Let us consider a third example, taken from the user manual for my Bosch dishwasher. I encountered the following sentence while reading about the “hygienePlus” feature.

This option is ideal for cleaning e.g. chopping boards and baby bottles.

The best strategy for turning the above sentence into reasonable English would be to transition by identifying the broader category in question.

This option is ideal for cleaning items that require a higher hygienic standard, such as chopping boards or baby bottles.

The above examples are mere isolated instances of a much broader problem that has a wide variety of manifestations. One reason why this problem is particularly tricky to identify and resolve is that transitions to examples when the category is left merely implied can work in many circumstances in English. Indeed, leaving the category unnamed is a particularly common approach when the stating the category is difficult, problematic, or unnecessary. In such circumstances, the English term “say” is commonly deployed as a connector, as in the following passage.

(James Surowiecki, “Taking on the Drug Profiteers,” The New Yorker, October 12, 2015).

In the passage, Germany is cited as just “one possible example” of the larger set of countries that have reliable drug approval systems, and which, by extension, should be able to import drugs to the US without the need for separate FDA approval. As stating this category explicitly would be problematic (that is, politically controversial), the author phrases the exposition to make the category relatively clear yet only implied. And it is precisely here that we find a source of divergence from German expositional strategies, for at least in some cases, it would appear that the German author does not necessarily feel the need to “pity the reader” and make the category to which examples belong sufficiently clear with supplemental context. It is the reader who, in the manner of a supplicant, pleading with the Privatdozent to partake in his greater knowledge, must do the extra work of deducing the nature of the category in question. In this way, I would tentatively hypothesize that the German use of “z. B.” can be reflective of underlying attitudes regarding the nature of communication and the respective (power) roles inhabited by the author and reader.

Interestingly, despite the prevalence of this all-too-common pitfall when moving from German to English, I have never seen it discussed at another language blog or website, and I often see professional translators fail to handle it adroitly when comparing texts at, say, a museum. The pervasive lack of recognition for the problem is most likely attributable to the fact that it resists clear and easy formalization and also has many subtle gradations of severity. Indeed, this “slippery” and “context-dependent” problem not only derails MT tools with great reliability, but German-speaking authors of English as well.

Common misnomers

Even well-educated English native speakers regularly bungle the following two terms in spoken contexts:

  1. “home in”: When “focusing” on something, English natives will often incorrectly assert they are “honing in on” [a thing], thus confounding “to hone” (to sharpen or whet) with the correct phrasing “home in on” (as in a heat-seeking missile). Interestingly, even extremely intelligent and well-read natives commit this error.
  2. “phenomena” vs. “phenomenon”: For some reason English natives will habitually use the singular “phenomenon” when meaning to refer to the plural “phenomena”. And even when they deploy the plural correctly, you can often hear the cerebral gears turning during the slight pause the speaker inserts prior to enunciating the word.

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.”

False appearances

One major takeaway from Perry Anderson’s excellent new article on the European Union (‘An Ever Closer Union?’, London Review of Books, January 7) is that fundamentally undemocratic arrangements lie at the heart of the EU, as policy formation would now appear to be the prerogative of a technocratic elite, with decisions of fundamental impact ‘ratified in ministerial conclaves, announced by heads of government, and presented to citizens at home as faits accomplis.’

As the insulation of regulatory policy from public preferences seems to be an inescapable feature of all modern administrative states (cf. DeCanio, Democracy and the Origins of the American Regulatory State), it is perhaps not surprising that the ‘democratic legitimacy’ enjoyed by EU institutions has become an ever-more frequent topic of debate in academic circles, particularly in Germany. While such discussions in the German-speaking world invariably make frequent use of the term gesellschaftliche Akzeptanz (roughly, ‘social/public acceptance’), in Anderson’s 15,000-word article, the word ‘acceptance’ does not appear once. How is this possible?

In contrast to their Anglo counterparts, the members of the German intellectual class are far more deliberate in their effort to codify and deploy terminology in a consistent and rigorous fashion, a phenomenon that I subsume under the term begriffliche Strenge (roughly, ‘terminological rigorousness’). While this tendency must be connected in part to the syntactical properties of German — including the ease with which abstract relationships can coagulate in noun form — the underlying causes elude simple identification, making it advisable instead to focus on the outward manifestations of this tendency, not least due to its relevance for the translator’s task.

Awareness for the divergence between German and English in this area allows one to realize that “acceptance” is not missing from Anderson’s text because the notion of gesellschaftliche Akzeptanz is more frequently subsumed under another term, as most Germans would suppose — thus leading them, when writing in English, to search for a specific noun that they can deploy in a consistent fashion (a vain endeavor).

Indeed, there are whole range of exceedingly common terms in German that are central to the academic discussion of certain topics but which lack proper English equivalents — yet not because Anglos have failed to adequately consider such issues, but rather because English tends to be somewhat more ambivalent and indeterminate in its use of terminology, a characteristic of English that can strike the German native as unsystematic — and, by extension, epistemologically unsophisticated. For clearly, terminological precision is a cornerstone of unambiguous communication and effective action by the collective. Yet it is not without its costs — I would suggest — for it also leads to a certain ‘brittleness’ and lack of flexibility in mental modes, as the contents of thought threaten to become chained to synthetic concepts out of step with true insight, particularly among the greater mass of men who merely adopt ready-made concepts en toto.

So how does Anderson convey the notion of gesellschaftliche Akzeptanz? Far from repeatedly deploying a single term in a rote manner, he speaks of ‘citizen investment’ and ‘active endorsement’ as alternatives to ‘listless acquiescence’ and ‘adverse public attention’. The first two terms actually provide an excellent example of the flexibility of English in the area of ‘ad hoc compounding’ (my term), a crucial source of linguistic dynamism in English and differentiating factor from German that I will seek to elaborate on in a future post.

As a final remark for those seeking a translation solution, I would expressly recommend against ‘public/social acceptance’, which seems to imply ‘begrudging toleration’, thus contradicting the ‘active approval’ inherent to the German term. ‘Public support’ is a decent solution; however, it should not be deployed with mechanical repetitiveness, as if it were a firmly codified Fachterminus without alternative (viz. alternativlos).

The auch error

“Auch” is such a simple word. And yet it is responsible for one of the most tenacious problems in German-to-English translation, a problem that has been a source of error in millions of documents. Incredibly, I have never seen this issue discussed at a blog or online dictionary; it is almost never recognized, neither by German native speakers authoring English texts, nor by professional translators.

I have written previously about this issue in two previous blog posts; both of these post fail to describe the problem in a straight-forward manner, however. After over a decade of pondering the “auch error”, I hope to clearly define it in this post.

“Auch” is used in a specific way in German that is extremely common but lacks a direct counterpart in English. The crucial difference is this: In German, “auch” can be used to introduce an item within a given category while also implying that other, as-of-yet unnamed items apply. In this way, “auch” and “also” only have partially overlapping meanings (viz. nur teilweise überlappende Bedeutungsumfänge). In numerous instances, they are direct cognates. Except in the above case.

Let us turn to a very simple example: imagine someone asks, “What did you buy at the store?” In German, it would be permissible to answer “I also bought apples”, meaning “I bought apples, among other things.” For an English native speaker, “I also bought apples” is, of course, an absurd and ungrammatical response. Crucially, in English, “also” cannot be used to cite an example unless there has been previous explicit mention of other items in the category of concern.

This problem may seem totally banal and simple when described in such straight-forward terms. However, when the text is more complicated, the “auch” problem can be much harder to detect and address. Here is another example sentence: Spracherwerb bedeutet auch den Erwerb einzelsprachlicher Perspektivierungsmuster. Interestingly, translating this sentence into English correctly is not possible without seeing the larger context. If the text previously mentioned an example of “what language acquisition involves,” we could render “auch” directly as “also” (thus arriving at “Language learning also involves the acquisition of patterns of perspective native to that language.”) However, in the actual context, no prior example was cited. Accordingly, there are three possibilities for dealing with “auch”:

(1) delete it completely (I discuss why and how this strategy was applied by the translator of Max Weber here);

(2) render “auch” as “among other things” (or similar); or

(3) rephrase by adding more specific reference to the existence of an overarching category, and then transition to the example with “including” (viz. “Language learning has many component elements, including …).

Ultimately, I elected to use a variant of option 3. My translation reads: “One aspect of language learning is the acquisition of patterns of perspective native to that language.”

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.

Perfection up close

A few weeks ago I visited the BMW Museum in Munich, eager to “experience perfection up close”, as the website advertises. The museum and adjoining buildings are certainly impressive to behold: after strolling through BMW Welt, a vaulting exhibition space that houses the latest vehicle models, we traversed a narrow concrete bridge to the BMW Museum, an undulating dome of polished steel and glass. BMW clearly spared little expense on this elaborate building complex, which cost a total of 700 million euros to construct. Moving through the museum’s futuristic spaces, I was thus somewhat surprised to notice a few grammatical issues in the English language placards adorning the exhibits. As I began to pay closer attention to the English descriptions and compare them to the German versions, I ultimately noted dozens of problems, from minor infelicities to more serious errors, including wholly incorrect mistranslations. While most of the English used in the permanent exhibition was decent, the temporary exhibit on e-mobility was particularly rife with error.

It was a disconcerting experience, and not just because it tarnished my impression of the BMW brand. More specifically, the slipshod English was a vivid reminder of the structural factors that assure the vast majority of English language translations in the German speaking world are mediocre and would be classified as stilted or incoherent by native speakers. Indeed, if BMW, a company that spends millions of dollars on marketing to cultivate the impression of quality, is unable to produce good English copy for their museum, how will less richly endowed organizations fare in their effort to convey a professional image abroad?

In the translation industry, both customers and suppliers are subject to incentives that encourage poor translations: high levels of competition, in part due to improved machine translation, have been exerting a downward pressure on prices, such that even big industry names now offer bargain basement rates; at the same time, German customers rarely understand that time-consuming editorial adjustments and judicious adaptation are required to generate a professional outcome in English, and, unable to accurately assess the quality of English writing delivered by translation providers, tend to prefer “direct” translations that seem faithful in a superficial way but are actually quite stilted. Indeed, many German customers place an extreme emphasis on fidelity and are quick to berate translators who attempt to distill meaning and produce a professional piece of writing through adaptation. Accordingly, translators often have a clear incentive to overlook problems and offer rote translations that are stylistically weak, as this spares them the extra effort of deconstructing the text and addressing particularly intractable problems.

A visit to the museum website only reaffirmed the poor impression I received while in Munich. Here are just a few of the problems I noticed:

(1) Basic spelling errors: “staches of tires and curbes”


(2) “its” autocorrected to “ist”:


(3) Verb tense: the simple past, not past perfect, is necessary here


(4) Poor word choice: “is 5000m2 big” is slipshod phrasing


(5) Grammatically incorrect participles (correct alternative: “Whether you visit our bistro, cafe, or restaurant, take a seat…”)


(6) Clumsy direct translation: the first sentence is awkward stylistically. “On our exhibition space” is poor. “Computer” needs to be lower case. The heading “BMW Individual” makes no sense.


To help ward off depression on the part of the reader I will end this post with a couple images of my beautiful e30 325is, which I owned from 1997 to 2018. Unlike the BMW Museum, that car was perfection up close.



The English comma

Translation sheds a unique light on your native tongue. Since working as a translator I have developed a dramatically new appreciation for proper comma placement in English, for in contrast to the fixed comma placement rules of German, there are a variety of contexts in which inserting a comma in English is a matter of taste and personal preference, rather than a grammatical necessity. While English native speakers intuitively understand that the comma can be optional depending on the context, this insight often escapes German natives, who can quickly become uncertain when attempting to write in English or review English language texts, for a highly developed sense of style is prerequisite for the skillful placement of the English comma, rather than knowledge of a formalized set of rules (or “normative order”, as the Germans might say). I had given little thought to this point of difference between German and English until an old customer of mine complained about inconsistency in my translations when it came to sentences that opened with subordinate clauses like “As part of their activities, the researchers […]” or “Within the department, the researchers […].” Of course, in both of these instances the comma is optional and its use in any one case depends in part on the sentence that came previously and the words that follow – that is, on style, and on the proper and natural rhythms of a good English sentence. Of course, English speakers lack a quasi-governmental authority like the “Council for German Orthography” that renders sweeping and binding judgments about the proper usage of the language; I assume the lack of a firm consensus in the English-speaking world on a variety of usage issues strikes many Germans as characteristic of the unsystematic and haphazard nature of the Anglo mindset when it comes to organizational matters. The Germans have a point. Structure is a source of strength. And yet too much order becomes its own weakness, much like a tree branch which, unable to bend in the wind, snaps. How much of German history could be fruitfully interpreted through this lens?

Sentence construction strategies

Why is writing well in English so difficult? Why do so many Germans with an excellent command of English still struggle to produce stylistically smooth prose? Lack of familiarity with English vocabulary and grammar is usually not the issue. The far more typical problem is insufficient mastery of good sentence structuring techniques. Indeed, in my experience, writing errors committed by German natives tend to stem from sentence construction strategies (viz. Satzbaustrategien) that are specific to German grammar and which do not work well in English. This could be a particular weakness for Germans because the pitfalls that abound in this regard cannot be easily subsumed into systematic categories that are amenable to formalized learning; the problems in this area are diffuse, confusing, and often difficult to explain. In this blog post I would nevertheless like to make a first attempt toward systematizing one usage issue typical of this “problem nexus.”

In German writing the preposition “mit” (“with”) is often deployed to create prepositional phrases that, when translated directly, are exceedingly stilted in English. Let us turn to an example:

Driverless vehicles are expected to become an important supplement to fixed-route public transit with a positive effect on vehicle demand.

Note the absence of a verb after “with.” In a great variety of circumstances German accommodates the stacking of nouns in prepositional phrases in ways that are simply not considered grammatical in English. In English, a new verb is needed to clarify the relationship between the elements of the sentence. My edited version reads:

Driverless vehicles are expected to become an important supplement to fixed-route public transit, and will thus have a positive effect on vehicle demand.

Let us look at another example. This one is taken from Deutsche Bank’s English website:

We adopted a comprehensive energy and climate strategy in 2007 with a commitment to effective environment action in all our activities.

The “with” prepositional phrase is used to introduce a “noun stack” of supplemental information in a manner that is clumsy in English. In this case, a good solution is to create a restrictive clause that has its own verb:

We adopted a comprehensive energy and climate strategy in 2017 that commits us to effective environmental action in all of our activities.

Let us turn to one last example:

The study explores the policy environment for investment in renewables, with a special consideration of their effects in cross-border renewables cooperation.

While most Germans would find no issue with this sentence, for English natives, it is clearly deficient. Another very good solution for the “mit noun stack” is to create a new independent clause that starts with “while” and a gerund:

The study explores the policy environment for investment in renewables while giving special consideration to their effects on cross-border renewables cooperation.

My hope with this blog entry is to sensitize German natives to one specific type of error they often commit when writing in English: namely, creating prepositional phrases that rely on “with” to introduce unreadable noun stacks that lack a verb. This is a sentence structuring technique that works well in German, but usually fails dramatically in English. In almost all cases, the best solution is to expand the prepositional phrase by turning it into a subordinate clause that contains a verb.

Knowledge transfer cont’d

I previously wrote here about the lack of an English equivalent for the common German term Wissenstransfer. While “knowledge transfer” is established in Anglophone microeconomics, it does not have the broad meaning of Wissenstransfer, which is used in German to designate various phenomena, from the sharing of academic insights with policymakers to the international spread of philosophical thought. The lack of a direct equivalent for Wissenstransfer is a translation problem of such severity that non-native speakers of English seem to be in a state of denial, as evidenced by edits recently made to the English Wikipedia entry for “knowledge transfer,” where the term is normally defined as a concept in “organizational theory” that relates to “transferring knowledge from one part of the organization to another.” At the end of the first paragraph, an unknown editor has contributed the following clarification: “The term has also been applied to the transfer of knowledge being transferred [sic] at the international level.” Edits to Wikipedia articles made by non-native speakers are always a joy, particularly when atrocious grammar is paired with errors of content. At the end of this sentence, we find two footnotes to substantiate the assertion: The first is a reference to an article published in the Economic Times of India that was auto-generated (!) based on a news feed from somewhere else (note that “knowledge transfer” appears nowhere in the article aside from the title, where it is used as part of the larger compound “scientific knowledge transfer”). The second is a reference to an EU document produced as part of the Innovation Union, which means German natives were maybe (just maybe!) involved in its authorship.

In any event, Lord Grey’s successful effort to squelch the pro-German factions in British Parliament who advocated remaining neutral in 1914 means we now live in a world of Anglophone hegemony, a world in which a Professor of Political Science at Yale University, when asked by your humble author to define “knowledge transfer,” can unabashedly respond, “What in the hell is that supposed to mean?”