All posts by L. Sewell

Citation style

There are number of clear differences in citation style between German and English. In English documents authored by non-natives, two formatting problems are particularly common; I would like to discuss them here:

(1) Formatting when listing multiple authors: According to APA Citation Style, each author of a title cited in a bibliography should be identified last-name first, with multiple names separated by commas. In the German-speaking world, however, the ubiquitous standard is to separate each name with a slash, e.g. “Adorno, Theodor / Horkheimer, Max (1944).” When German academics submit manuscripts for publication in English-language journals, the bibliographies almost invariably use the slash as a separator. While I have seen the slash used in this way in one or two instances in publications authored by English native speakers since becoming attuned to this problem, it is certainly exceedingly rare. The slash should be dropped in favor of a comma.

(2) Punctuation separating titles and subtitles: In addition to the “en dash,” which is standard in both English and German, the period is used most frequently as a title/subtitle separator in the German-speaking world, as in the following example: “Minima Moralia. Reflexionen aus dem beschädigten Leben.” However, the colon – which is exceedingly common in this context in English – is virtually never used in German. As this separating element is not part of the title per se, but should be viewed instead as a meta-element only added during citation, the language of the document citing the publication should govern whether a period or colon/en dash is used. Accordingly, the period should never be used as a title/subtitle separator in English-language publications. This is another extremely common problem that I see when editing manuscripts written by Germans natives, and it is an issue that is easy to overlook if one fails to give due attention to the citation-formatting differences between German and English.

Dealing with lower-case German brand names

One of the more intractable problems that I frequently encounter when translating from German to English concerns brand names that are written in lower case in German. Of course, there are a myriad of brand names in the English-speaking world that are written in lower case, such as Intel and Acer, the department store Macy’s, or the photo sharing site Flickr. The lower-case formatting, however, is invariably limited to the logo. In body texts, these names are always capitalized.

In the German-speaking world, by contrast, brand names that are written in lower case in both the logo and body text are exceedingly common. The lower case formatting in the body text works in German, because German nouns are always capitalized – a brand name in lower case is thus clearly recognizable as such, as it stands out from the rest of the text. In an English text, however, particularly when the brand name is a common word (e.g. Seamless), failure to capitalize is problematic, because the word gets lost in the text, and the result is very confusing for the reader.

Accordingly, when translating into English, I am a strong advocate of consistent capitalization for German brand names. This recommendation may seem obvious to English native speakers, but in the vast majority of cases in which German brand names are translated, one typically sees the lower case writing retained in the English version.

One interesting example of this “clash of (branding) cultures” is Audi’s insistence on the lower case spelling of their all-wheel drive Quattro brand in foreign markets. I imagine that the executives in the US initially balked at this formatting, and that the trademark logo was added as a compromise whenever the term is used in order to clearly demarcate it as a brand name. In English, of course, the lower case formatting is odd, as testified by the following quote from a review article at “You may remember the Audi allroad quattro, a beefed up A6 wagon that made up in off-road ability what it lacked in proper capitalization.”

The moral of the story? Brand names need to be capitalized in an English body text, even if this means discrepancy between the English and German marketing materials. The costs of maintaining consistent lower case spelling are simply too high, as there is a lack of acceptance among English-speaking audiences for lower-case brand names. Literally the only exception that I have seen in this connection is the brand name “easyJet”, but here the capital “J” somewhat compensates for the lower-case initial letter.

Style and legitimacy

As documented in Wolfgang Leonard’s book Die Revolution entlässt ihre Kinder, the Russians relied heavily on ethnic Germans who grew up in the Soviet Union to build legitimacy for the occupation of East Germany following WWII. German-speaking communists such as Leonard were installed in positions of influence and played a major role in manufacturing the propaganda narratives that cast the Russian occupiers as liberators who would usher in a new and more just political order. While such wholesale manipulation of public opinion is certainly not unique to this historical moment, a prerequisite for public acceptance of wholly tendentious political dogma is invariably the patina of legitimacy that is purchased through artful rhetoric. For even the Russians recognized that style — or, as Aristotle defined it, “the way of saying things” — is crucial for getting your message across effectively. Accordingly, they had loyal Germans write the propaganda material that was to be read in East Germany, instead of trying to write it themselves. Certainly, the East German government would have collapsed in mere weeks if Russian native speakers had been in charge of editing the country’s newspapers.

Strong mastery of rhetoric is thus prerequisite for “hegemonic narratives” to achieve acceptance. Conversely, when one runs roughshod over the dictates good style, legitimacy can quickly crumble. I have always found official pronouncements that exhibit a poor command of the language to be deeply unsettling. Why is this? It is perhaps because the state unmasks itself as crude and unthinking at the very moment it expresses its very real and dangerous power over the individual. This contradiction is a primary source of humor in Kafka’s writing; the linguistic gaffes of officialdom are quintessentially Kafkaesque.

Take the following sign, for example, which can be found at multiple locations on the fence surrounding the US embassy in Berlin, right next to Brandenburg Gate.


To state the obvious: This is deplorable, ear-shattering English. The number of problems the translator manages to pack into just two sentences is quite impressive. Let’s enumerate them individually:

1. A flagrant preposition error: “in the area” would work; “on the area” is extremely odd. The best solution would be to remove “in the area” altogether and just say “in front of.” This is sufficiently clear and avoids stilted sentence flow.

2. Incorrect word choice: “Verursacher” may mean “causer” in a literal sense, but “causer” is not permissible English. Generally, this type of sign would say “at the owner’s expense” in the English-speaking world. If there is in fact a crucial legal distinction between “owner” and “causer” in Germany, such that “owner” cannot be used, then alternate phrasing is necessary, such as “at the responsible individual’s expense.”

3. Superfluous wording: “of all kinds” is unnecessary; “other objects” is sufficiently broad.

4. Questionable usage: Although “in case” is not incorrect, its usage was clearly inspired by the German construction “im Falle” (despite the latter’s absence from the German version). “In case” is generally used to refer to precautionary measures for emergencies such as fire or accident and is often not an appropriate direct translation for “im Falle.” It would be better to drop “in case” altogether and simply say: “Non-compliance will result … .”

5. Passive construction: This is a pithy point, but “it is forbidden by the police” is a poor passive construction. Why not start the sentence differently, i.e with “The police forbid …” or “Vehicles and other objects may not be…”?

6. Information left out: What happened to “Der Polizeipräsident in Berlin”? My guess is that this was simply dropped because it is difficult to render in English. Yet if this information can be omitted, why is the rest of the translation so slavingly faithful to the German, at the expense of readable English?

How could a sign like this get made? Isn’t it a bit contradictory that, on the one hand, the US embassy in Berlin is a major NSA listening post, where analysts pore through Angela Merkel’s text messages, but, on the other hand, embassy officials are unable to effectively monitor the signs that get attached to the fence outside the building? While it does appear that the sign was devised by the local police, were no embassy officials involved in its creation or approval? For the passer-by, the following question thus arises: Are the officials inside simply inept, or are they instead asleep at the switch? Neither eventuality is particularly reassuring. Yet the cogs of power are menacingly real.

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.

Linguistic interference and those pesky private households

“Linguistic interference” refers to when speakers of one language apply knowledge from a second, with occasionally strange results.

An interesting example of linguistic interference that I often see in English texts written by German natives was on display in an interview given by the economist Heiner Flassbeck of Hamburg University for Real News Network: Flassbeck refers at one point to “private households,” a direct translation of “private Haushalte.” This error is quite common: The descriptor “private” is wholly superfluous, as “households” are always “private” in English (“public households” do not exist, as they do in German).

Yet there are additional examples of linguistic interference in the interview. The title of the interview itself seems to have been selected by Flassbeck, as the article and gerund use in “Systemic Malfunctioning of the Labor and Financial Markets” is slightly off. Rephasing is needed; the best title is probably “Systematic Malfunction in Labor and Financial Markets”. Also good: “The Systemic Malfunction of Labor and Financial Markets.”

In addition, at the beginning of the interview, an awkward translation for Flassbeck’s book is offered: “Act Now! The Global Manifesto for Economic Policy.” Although the phrasing in German is “Das Manifesto,” a direct translation here is slightly stilted. The English title should read “A Global Manifesto for Economic Policy.”

When is precision excessive?

When I was first living in Berlin and new to Germany I was surprised to regularly overhear telephone conversations on the subway that went something like this: “Hey Klaus, I’m on my way but I will be a bit late; you can expect me in 6 to 7 minutes.” Sometimes the delay cited would be 13 to 14 minutes, or 17 to 18 minutes, but it would invariably involve a narrow time range and at least one prime number. An American, of course, would never attempt to quantify the delay with such precision, as this would seem foolish (“will you really be there in exactly 6 to 7 minutes??”) and/or completely anal, as it violates the unwritten law that you must announce you are going to be late with numbers divisible by five. From the German perspective, however, providing a fastidiously accurate Zeitangabe (i.e. “time specification”) is completely reasonable, as everyone knows the average station-to-station travel time in Berlin is 2 minutes, so you merely have to multiply the number of subway stops by 2 and add the additional walking time required, considering that at a brisk pace you can cover 500 meters in 3.5 minutes. This simple calculation method yields an arrival time with a margin of error of +/-30 seconds. Of course, I’m exaggerating (slightly), but punctuality is a big deal in Germany, and accurately stating when you will arrive is simply considered polite.

The German penchant for accuracy in weights and measures is also particularly evident when figures are cited in magazine and newspaper articles. From a German perspective, extremely accurate figures add color to the story and also underscore the thoroughness of the reporting. A recent article in Der Spiegel about the Mexican drug war, for example, begins by recounting a drug bust in which an undercover police officer was carrying “155 grams of heroin”. As this figure could be interpreted by American and British readers as gratuitously precise, in the English version of the article, it was simply changed by the translators at Der Spiegel to “150 grams of heroin.”

This modification of the German original is an excellent example of effective adaptation, as it places consideration for the reader above a slavish adherence to the content of the source text, which may not be effective in a different cultural space. The fact that the numbers themselves need to be changed when translating into English speaks to the level of adaptation that is occasionally required.

On a side note, the modification made to the article’s title is also illustrative: Originally titled “Hombre, du bist am Arsch” (“Hombre, you’re fucked”), the English version reads “El Paso Vice.” This demonstrates an additional principle of good translation: if the direct equivalent in English is weird or otherwise inappropriate, you should simply change it.

Codified error and Trennbankensysteme

One of the most surprising phenomena in the world of translation that I encounter with great frequency is the tendency for clearly incorrect translations of certain terms to become accepted and widely used as standard terminology. This phenomenon is certainly attributable in part to native speakers of German translating into English. Yet the indolence and timidity of many translators must also play a large role. To provide an example: The accepted translation for “Trennbankensystem” at LEO and in other specialized dictionaries is “separate banking system.” This translation really raises my hackles, as it is completely incorrect. The term “Trennbankensystem” refers to the separation that previously existed in the US between between commercial and investment banks, as per the requirements of Glass-Steagall. The German term thus refers expressly to circumstances in the United States, which should make the identification of a good translation an easy task. The accepted terms in English for this separation are “dual banking system” and “two-tiered banking system”, but not “separate banking system,” which almost seems to refer to some sort of “secondary” or “shadow” banking sector. The term is thus not only incorrect, but highly misleading. Nevertheless, it is found in all online dictionaries that contain a entry for the term, and has been used faithfully by translators in innumerable documents. It really is a sad state of affairs.

This is by no mean an isolated example. Consistent mistranslation – or “codified error,” as I like to call it – is extremely common: In the area of finance, for example, I often see the English term “participations” used as a translation for “Beteiligungen”, which is just about as correct as Arnold Schwarzenegger talking about the “advices” he gives to Franco Columbu. The correct way phrase this, of course, it to speak of an “ownership stake” or “holdings” in a company. “Participation” for describing investment interest can work, but should almost always be kept singular.

Dynamic adaptation

“Dynamic adaptation” is one way of referring to the various modifications and adjustments that are required when translating from one language to another in order to assure a clear and readable target text. It means taking a proactive approach to the translation process by actively searching for modes of expression in the target language that are effective for conveying the content of the original document. Often, to create a readable English translation massive modification is required, as equivalents for the German terms and phrases simply don’t exist. In many instances, the lack of equivalents is attributable to institutional differences, as in the following example:

“[Mit einem Minijob vermeiden sie] die hohe implizite Besteuerung durch das Ehegattensplitting und die beitragsfreie Mitversicherung in der gesetzlichen Krankenversicherung.”

This sentence describes labor market and tax regulations in Germany that don’t have direct correlates in the US or UK. The difficulties in translating this sentence are actually two-fold: While there are in fact weakly established translations for a few of the terms in the sentence, these “translations” are to some extent completely useless, for the reader, lacking knowledge of the circumstances that prevail in Germany, will simply not understand the “English” terms. The only solution, therefore, is to go about the translation in a way that explains the situation to the reader. This problem is posed in particular by “Ehegattensplitting”. While a direct translation might be “spouse splitting,” we should perhaps avoid implying that the Germans are running a government-subsidized “wife swapping” program. My translation thus includes a gloss: “… the high implicit taxes resulting from the ‘splitting rule’ (which allows spouses to pool and equally divide their income to determine tax liability) ….”

Yet the more crucial problem that emerges in this sentence – and the actual crux of my point – relates to the dynamic transformation that is needed to convert the phrasing “die beitragsfreie Mitversicherung in der gesetzlichen Krankenversicherung” into acceptable English. The outcome of a word-for-word translation is completely unintelligible: “the contribution-free co-insurance in the statutory health insurance.” The term “co-insurance” – apparently an accepted translation for “Mitversicherung” – is laughably bad, as it is totally misleading. Massive conversion is needed to arrive at a coherent English phrase. Here is one possible way to word the idea being presented: “tax-free extension of government insurance coverage held by a working partner to his or her spouse.”

If the goal is to produce an understandable and correct English text, this sort of adaptation is actually required in nearly every sentence that ones translates, demonstrating that translation is much less a form of transcription than actually a reinventing of the source text’s ideas to accommodate the possibilities and restrictions of a radically different system of words and sempahore. The individual words hardly correspond at all – because words are tangential to ideas, which tend to reside in phrases, and not just individual particles.