All posts by L. Sewell

German compounding

The extent to which German grammatical constructions can resemble a mathematical formula is particuarly well demonstrated, I think, by the following compound: “Energieversorgungs-, -handels- und -dienstleistungsunternehmen”

The suspended lexeme “-handels-” in the middle of the sentence is the really interesting thing here.

Parenthetical inserts

A frequent point of difficulty for the German-to-English translator concerns the handling of parenthetical inserts, as there is a clear divergence between the two languages in the conventions that govern their usage. While parenthesis are used in both German and English to offer explanatory or qualifying statements about that which is said, German parenthetical remarks are often introduced in a manner that the English native speaker cannot help but find somewhat abrupt. In English, for example, when a substitute term is introduced in parenthesis, the new term is typically offered in the form of a rhetorical aside. Take the following example:

The Red Army Faction (also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang) was a far-left radical group.

The phrase “also known as” helps to steer the reader and preserve the cadence of the sentence. In German, however, alternative terms are often presented in a highly direct manner, without such formalities, as in the following examples:

Die Planzen werden in den Kärntner Alpen (Nockberge) in einem Naturschutzprojekt kultiviert und streng kontrolliert geerntet.

Bei der Schaltung von Bannern und dem Einkauf von Werbeflächen (Mediaplanung) stehen wir unseren Kunden mit unserem langjährigen Know-how zur Seite.

Although this style of substitutional insertion is not unknown in English, it is used far less frequently than in German. This type of substitution, when translated directly, often yields a target sentence with a disjointed feeling. In this way, in light of the clear discrepencies between German and English usage in this area, the translator should take the liberty of rephrasing parenthetical inserts to conform with the conventions of good, standard English, lightly embellishing them as necessary to ensure smooth sentence cadence.

Probability-based translation

The more I translate, the more convinced I become that developing accurate translation software is a nearly impossible task, and one that certainly can’t be achieved with probability-based models alone, as is used by Google Translate. Aside from the idiosyncratic and cultural properties of language (as previously discussed here), machine translation is complicated by the incompleteness of reference databases. Essentially, it’s impossible for a piece of software to translate a term for which no dictionary entry or prior translation exists. This problem is much more pressing than one might initially suspect, considering the frequency with which the translator encounters little-used terms for which no translation is immediately forthcoming. Translating the other day, I kept a list of uncommon terms and the number of Google hits each term yields. Here are a few: Patentfeld (7 hits); patentstark (3 hits); versatzfähig (1 hit); bestandeskundlich (2 hits); tiefenstufenabhängig (3 hits).

In the absence of an ability to consider the larger context of a text and deconstruct meaning – in short, without the ability to think – translation software is unable to effectively deal with non-standard terms. Yet the complicating factor of rare terminology is just one example of the many situations in translation in which a 1:1 rendering is not possible. Clearly, the dynamic transformation of the signifiers in a source text necessary to produce an accurate and legible translation is an act of creative interpretation that is totally beyond the present capabilities of translation software, particularly software based on probability models.


Pseudo-anglicisms, that is, words borrowed from English and invested with new meaning in another language, are particularly abundant in German marketing texts. PR and communications agencies in Germany regularly employ mountains of English marketing jargon in their client presentations. Frequently, highly specialized terms are employed incorrectly; in other cases, one encounters pseudo-English terminology that has been codified with new definitions. A harrowing job for the translator. I was working on a Power Point presentation yesterday in which a list of proposed marketing activities appeared; one bullet point read: “Claim als Crowner.” I found this rather funny – two putatively English words side-by-side that an English speaker would not understand. The term “Claim” is quite common and used in German to mean “slogan.” I had to do some research on “Crowner,” however, which turns out to be an advertising sticker on a display case (a riff on Krönung, perhaps?). I’m often curious as to origin of these terms, which, in many instances, seemed to be rooted in a misunderstanding of English. The term “claim,” of course, can be used in English to indicate an argument made about the merits of a product. I would suppose it was simply misinterpreted some decades ago by an exchange student who went on to become an influential marketing guru in Germany. “Crowner,” on the other hand, has clearly been spun from whole cloth, much like the German marketing terms “BlowUp” (for an extremely large billboard) and “Sell-Out-Unterstützung” (the meaning of which I am still trying to ascertain).

German lists

Today I wanted to share a few thoughts about German lists – the scourge of the German-to-English translator. Germans have a great fondness for lists. And, due to the machine-like precision of German grammatical constructions, lists can take on bewildering forms (read: ineinandergeschachtelte Formen). Many lists simply defy a 1:1 translation. For this reason, the astute translator must look beyond the words on the page to arrive at context-based adaptation that does its best to honor the contents of the source text.

Take a look at the following list: “Darüber hinaus [umfasst das Portfolio] aber auch alle relevanten Spezialbereiche wie Gebäudeautomation, Förder-, Licht-, Kommunikations- und Sicherheitstechnik bis zu Alternativtechnologien und regenerativen Energien, die zunehmend an Bedeutung gewinnen.” The extended compound construction in the middle of the sentence (i.e. “Förder-, Licht-, Kommunikations- und Sicherheitstechnik”) simply cannot be translated directly into English; English grammar does not allow for this type of formulation. This does not mean, however, that the sentence cannot be translated. Heavy modification (or “re-building,” as I like to call it) is simply required.

Let’s take a look at how another translator handled this sentence, to get a better idea of what one should avoid doing: “In addition, however, also all relevant special aspects such as building automation, conveying, lighting, communications and safety engineering through to alternative technologies and regenerative energy, which are gaining in importance.” First of all, this is an incomplete sentence. Although German marketing texts often contain sentences which would be considered incomplete in English, the implied subject and verb of the original construction (i.e. “the portfolio comprises”) must be integrated into the English translation. Second, the translator’s rendering of the word “relevant” – a false cognate – is inappropriate. The best solution is to drop the term, as all possible approximations only worsen the sentence. Turning to the translator’s handling of the listed items, one is at first struck by the disjointed phrasing: “conveying” as an “aspect” of the portfolio? “Communications engineering”? The word choice is not only problematic here, the cadence of the sentence is an affront to the reader.

Here’s my revised version: “Yet the company also provides specialized services for building automation, communication and safety systems, lighting, and conveyer applications – in addition to planning services for regenerative- and alternative-energy technologies, an area of increasing importance.” Several changes were necessary here: first of all, it was essential to escape the source text’s definition of the listed items as “areas” within the portfolio (this was the key change, and is an important strategy for dealing with lists of this nature). The various items are instead viewed as “services,” which adds more flexibility to the range of terminology that can be used. Second, it was necessary to abandon the utterly non-translatable compound construction “Förder-, Licht-, Kommunikations- und Sicherheitstechnik.” Intelligent rephrasing was required here. Third, with regard to the flow of the sentence, it proved helpful to simply reorganize the listed items. This is another important strategy for dealing with German lists (some might raise objection to this approach by rightfully pointing out that the order of listed items can have bearing on the relative importance attached to them. In English, however, this is only true in exceptional circumstances, and certainly not in the present example).

Considering the massive reformulation of the source text that was required to arrive at a clear English sentence, one is impressed here by the degree to which translation can become an act of interpretation. Clearly, the translator must take an active role in re-structuring the source text for the sake of the reader. From this perspective, “accuracy” in translation is a highly subjective idea; a translation is only “faithful” as a function of the interpretative creativity and skill of the translator, not in its fidelity to the purported inviolability of the signifiers in the source text.

(Readers have rightfully pointed out that the translation of English lists into German is beset by its own unique problems. This post does not mean to imply that German is somehow unique with regard to the difficulties involved in the translation of listed items.)

Proper names that aren’t so proper

There’s a gym near our apartment in Berlin that advertises itself as a “health and fitness club” on a sign above the main entrance. I walked past the gym regularly for weeks and always thought to myself, “Now, what’s the actual name of this place? They should display the name more prominently.” This morning my patience was finally exhausted. Determined to identify the gym’s name, I stopped to inspect the sign and peer through the windows. Lo and behold: the place is simply called “Health and Fitness Club.”

Proper names based on everyday English words are actually not that rare in Germany, and I find them to be highly annoying. In Stuttgart, for example, there’s a company called “Financial Consulting,” a business name you could never actual register in the U.S., because it fails to identify the business uniquely. (I can just imagine the founder filling out the registration papers: Name of business? Financial consulting. Type of business? Financial consulting…).

Grading systems

In recent weeks I’ve been confronted numerous times by a special translation problem which I suspect may be unique to German-English translation. The problem concerns the translation of German grades into English, or, more specifically, the difficulty in arriving at appropriate and honest translations when mediating between the divergent conventions of the American and German grading systems. In the U.S., of course, the standard grading scale is usually: A=excellent, B=very good/good, C=satisfactory, D=poor, and F=fail. In Germany, by contrast, a numerical scale is used, with the following rankings: 1=sehr gut (very good), 2=gut (good), 3=befriedigend (satisfactory), 4=ausreichend (sufficient), 5=mangelhaft (deficient), 6=ungenügend (insufficient).

It’s interesting to note the clear discrepancy at the top of the scale: the best possible mark in Germany is “very good,” a grade which is a notch below best in the U.S. While the remaining differences don’t seem excessive at first glance, real complications arise when one goes about translating German “report cards” into English, particularly into US English (interestingly enough, it’s actually much easier to translate German grades into British English, a topic which I’ll leave aside for now). The problem is two-dimensional: on the one hand, due to so-called “grade inflation” in the US, anything below an A-average is less than spectacular, and certainly doesn’t earn you a scholarship. Yet at the same time, Germans have a tendency to be extremely reserved in their praise, which is reflected in the relative greater difficulty of achieving a top mark in German courses, as well as in the peak grade designation of “very good” (in contrast to “excellent”).

On a practical level, this means that a German report card that consists solely of “2s” (or “straight Bs”) – certainly a respectable performance in Germany – can come across as somewhat mediocre in the U.S. As a result, the translator is placed in a bind, and must reconcile two sets of opposing loyalties – the first: to the source text, and to the faithful transcription of its contents; and the second: to the context of the linguistic encounter, to the meaning and interpretations which will be received by the reader. One possible method of resolving this issue – to leave the grades untranslated – is, in my view, no solution at all, because it fails to provide the reader with a perspective on the student’s academic performance. The translator’s job is to filter meaning, not to obfuscate it. Considering the inadequacies of a 1:1 translation, the best solution here – and one that I have employed several times in the past – is to retain the German numerical grade, but to append it with a slightly more laudatory description than a direct translation would otherwise permit. Thus, for example, “2 (gut)” is rendered as 2 (”very good”), and “1 (sehr gut)” is translated as “1 (excellent).” Some translators might raise objection to this “context-based” or “interpretive” approach to resolving the issue, and insist that the translator has overstepped his bounds with such a solution, yet I’m convinced of its merits. A translation cannot be viewed as “faithful” if it ultimately does a disservice to the meaning that lies behind the text.

International cinema

I was reading Peter Scholl-Latour’s “Lügen im Heiligen Land” the other night when I ran across a rather amusing passage. Here it is: “Warum fällt mir plötzlich aus einem der erfolgreichsten Abenteuer-Filme Steven Spielbergs jene Szene ein, in der sich Indiana Jones als ‘Jäger des verlorenen Schatzes’ – so lautet die Produktion auf deutsch – in einem imaginären Orient gegen eine Horde gotteslästerlicher Nazis durchsetzt? Es ist bezeichnend für den kümmerlichen Wissenstand des deutschen Kino – und Fernsehpublikums – zumindest wird er von dem Programm-Machern so eingeschätzt –, daß man ihm den amerikanischen Originaltitel ‘The Raiders of the Lost Arch’ vorenthielt.

I had a similar thought about the fairly recent German movie “The Lives of Others,” which was well received in the US. Are Americans simply too insular to relate to the original title, “Das Kleben der Anderen”?

(The original name of the Spielberg movie is of course “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The Oscar-winning movie directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is titled “Das Leben der Anderen.”)

On examples

The translator’s job is to resolve problems – to smooth out incongruities between languages, to bridge the gap between linguistic systems. Translation can be a highly frustrating endeavor – a seemingly Sisyphean task, at times – yet the translator can also relish a sense of satisfaction when things “work” – when, by dint of luck or skill, it’s possible to render a translation that is both highly true to the original text and eminently readable.

In translation, however, very few things “work” automatically. Any translator who takes his job seriously will admit to occasionally spending up to a half-hour or more on the translation of a single sentence. While this time expenditure can often be attributed to the incontrovertibility of specific terms or idioms, in many instances – and herein lies the rub – the grammatical conventions of the source text simply preclude its direct adaptation.

Take, for instance, the way in which the expression “for example” (zum Beispiel or z.B.) can be employed in German. Linguistically, “for example” is used to introduce an object or concept representative of a given category or group. In English, if this overarching class or group is not specifically defined, it is almost always clearly implied. Interestingly, in German texts “for example” is sometimes used in situations when the larger subsuming class is left unintroduced. Take the following sentence: “Durch intelligente Systemintegration erreichen Sie beispielsweise eine verlässliche Anbindung an Ihr Warenwirtschaftssystem.” A direct translation: “Thanks to intelligent system integration you’re provided with a reliable connection to your inventory management system, for example.” Some translators would also likely opt for the following rendering: “Thanks to intelligent system integration you’re provided, e.g. with a reliable connection to your inventory management system.” Both translations ring false because of a divergence in conventions governing the use of the expression “for example.” In the first version it is unclear what is being cited as an example, the “system integration” or the “management system.” The second version is simply incorrect. If the source sentence had been originally formulated in English at least tacit reference would have been made to the overarching category under which the example falls. Here’s a possible alternate translation: “Thanks to intelligent system integration you’re provided with a number of benefits, such as a reliable connection to your inventory management system.” The interesting point here is that the translation of the text in a manner that adheres to normal conventions for the presentation of information in English is only possible through an act of interpretation and the inclusion of inferred information. Essentially, the incompatibility of German and English with regard to the use of “for example” in this instance necessitates the reformulation of the source text.

Here’s another interesting case of “for example” used in German in the absence of a clear category: “15 Partneragenturen repräsentieren Werbeagentur X in 15 Ländern exklusiv mit Schwerpunkt in Europa. In enger Zusammenarbeit entstehen beispielsweise Kampagnen, die länderübergreifend erfolgreich sind” (”Fifteen partnering agencies exclusively represent Ad Agency X in 15 different countries, with a focus on Europe. In close cooperation, for example, successful transnational campaigns are created.”) Translated directly the second sentence is fairly unintelligible, and is also grammatically incorrect. What is being cited as an example here? The “cooperation” or the “campaigns”? In German, the relationship is quite clear – essentially, the agencies work closely together to produce lots of great stuff; one example of the great stuff they produce is successful campaigns – yet the German sentence eludes direct translation into English. A context-based approach was finally taken here, yielding the following translation: “Fifteen partnering agencies exclusively represent Ad Agency X in 15 different countries, with a focus on Europe. Successful transnational campaigns are developed in close-coordination with these partners.”

In the above sentence the best course of action was to simply drop “for example.” The alternative would have been to invent an introductory clause to properly transition to the example cited. Some might object to the liberties taken with the source text, yet I would contend that in this particular case “for example” had been inserted reflexively by the author and ultimately didn’t hold much meaning. (The listing of one example implies that there are other examples which could be cited – but in this specific text there was literally nothing of relevance which could been listed alongside “successful campaigns.”)

On a semiotic level, a host of expressions – such as “beispielwiese,” “auch,” and “etwa” – can be easily employed in German to allude to further examples of that which is specifically addressed. In the process, sentences are created which are inadmissible on a structural level in English. I hope to discuss this topic in greater detail in an upcoming post.

Loanwords and misnomers

English loanwords are proliferate in the German language, and new words are adopted on a daily basis. Borrowing is particularly pronounced in the business world, where mastery of English neologisms carries a certain cachet. Scores of English words invariably crop up in German marketing texts. Take the following extreme example, which I came across recently: “Last not least sorgen unter anderem vier Bands mit heißem Sound für eine tolle Stimmung und echtes Partyfeeling.”

The particular problem for the translator—which the above sentence demonstrates fairly well—relates to the way in which borrowed words are often invested with new meaning in German. “Partyfeeling” is of course an invented compound which only the most foolhardy would dare to transcribe directly. Yet the most probable renderings—“party atmosphere,” or similar, are also fraught with the potential for inaccuracy, as the term “Party” in German can be an acceptable designation for a rather staid corporate reception—which is not the case in English.

False cognates await the unwary translator in a myriad of seemingly innocuous contexts. In German, for example, the term “Trailer” designates all manner of short promotional videos. In English, however, a “trailer” is specifically a promotional clip for a feature film—an unawareness of this fact can lead to a serious error in the translation. In a similar vein, the term “Headline” is used in German to indicate the heading of any document; in English, by contrast, we only speak of headlines in the newspaper. An even stranger example is the German use of the term “Wording,” which refers generally to a company’s internal language—“wording” in English, of course, merely refers to the way something is phrased.

The German use of the word “team” in business contexts is also a source of particular frustration for the translator. In Germany the staff of any company is often referred to as the “team”; in English, by contrast, the term is used much more sparingly to designate an inter-organizational group with a specific task—if it is used at all. Confronted with the term in many contexts the translator may feel compelled to select a substitute, yet he can only do so at the risk of arousing the resistance of the client, for whom “team” is the firmly established designation.