Category Archives: Denglisch

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.



Confounding compounds

In this blog I particularly enjoy discussing translation problems that have no simple solution. Indeed, I would argue that intractable translation problems are inherently the most interesting. This is because they expose the degree to which linguistic systems can be fundamentally incompatible. And it is precisely here that we find the true task of the translator – to understand and bridge linguistic incompatibilities.

An interesting problem that I encounter with great frequency concerns a certain type of compound noun – specifically, the “compound proper name” and the divergent ways in which it is often formed in German and English.

In English, the qualifying or modifying elements of a compound noun almost always come first. For example, if an engineer is specialized in electrical systems, he is an “electrical engineer,” not an “engineer electrical.” Another example: if a college is specialized in training teachers, it is a “teachers college” and not a “college teachers.”

In certain cases in English, the qualifying element can be placed at the end of the compound, but when this is done, a comma is (usually) inserted, as in “Meal, Ready to Eat” or “Vice President, Commercial Lending.”

All of this is pretty obvious. However, in a wide variety of contexts in German, the qualifying element is placed at the end of the compound without a comma.

Here are a few examples of German compounds that do this, all of which are particularly interesting because they make use of terms that are technically English and thus ostensibly suited for an international audience: “Publishing Director Books,” “Main Office Sales,” “Wind Offshore,” “Trainee Purchasing,” and “Competence Center Cement.” In each of these cases, the word order has to be inverted or a comma inserted if the name is to be deployed successfully in an English speaking context. However, a serious problem arises when the proper name in question is already widely in circulation. Should the “Publishing Director Books” have all his business cards reprinted and title changed at the company website? The answer is yes. In other cases, as in “Competence Center Cement,” changing the name might not be so simple.

This problem can be particularly tricky because in certain cases the qualifying element can come at the end in English, as in “King’s College London.” Usually, however, the geographical designation comes first, as in “Ramstein Air Base.” So what should we do with “Pädagogische Hochschule Zentralschweiz”?



Realizing things in German

Overwhelmed by her victory in the Eurovision song contest last night, Germany’s Lena Meyer-Landrut was at a loss for words. She had clearly not yet come to grips with her win, or, as the German announcer covering the event put it: “Sie hat ihren Sieg noch nicht realisiert.” Lena herself admitted as much later, stating: “Ich hab’ das alles noch gar nicht richtig realisiert.” Strictly speaking, however, “realisieren” in German means “to bring about; to concretize” (as in, “Das Projekt wurde realisiert“). The meaning “to grasp or understand clearly” is a calque, the result of recent infiltration by the English language. Sadly, many – if not most – Germans are unaware of the questionable nature of “realisieren” in this context. Thus, the dilution of German by the Weltsprache continues apace.


The term Lohndumping (“wage dumping”) has become widely used in Germany over the past few years. Like many political buzzwords, it’s hard to define precisely: It refers in a general sense to the act of offering excessively low wages; accusations of “Lohndumping” are regularly voiced in low-wage sectors to highlight the ostensibly exploitive behavior of employers. Regardless of whether this term is useful and appropriate for drawing attention to unjust wage arrangements, I’ve always been uncomfortable with it sheerly on account of its etymology as a pseudo-English permutation of “price dumping.” “Price dumping,” of course, refers to a form of predatory behavior in which products manufactured cheaply in one market are “dumped” en masse onto another market, thereby depressing the price and running out the domestic competition. The term “Lohndumping” therefore strikes the native speaker of English as peculiar, for wages cannot be “dumped” in a figurative sense as products can. As a neologism that appears to have its origins in a misunderstanding of English, it’s highly disconcerting when prominent German politicians and economists employ the term “wage dumping” in English press conferences, unaware that the term simply doesn’t exist. The translators at Der Spiegel also seem to be in the dark, using “wage dumping” without explanation in the English version of a current article on the Greek debt crisis. A gloss is clearly needed here, as is recognized by the New York Times (note that the term “wage dumping” has only appeared 6 times in the history of the NYT’s publication, and in all instances to refer to statements made by a German politician or intellectual).

False friends

False friends – that is, apparent cognates in two languages that actually have quite different meanings – are often a source of difficulty for the foreign language learner. I’ve been shocked to realize on several occasions that my understanding of specific German terms –  the definitions of which seemed secure in my internal lexicon – had in fact been distorted by their putative English equivalents. When the error concerns a word for which one has a certain fondness, the experience is all the most disconcerting. Just yesterday I learned that, while the term “latent” can certainly have the exact same meaning in both languages,  it tends in German to designate a “hidden” but “constantly present” thing – in English, by contrast,  the term in everyday usage refers to a hidden potential which has not yet manifested itself. This is a key distinction: is the thing being described active or not? I had muttered quite a bit of invective under my breath at the author of the text I was translating for his ostensible misuse of the term before consulting with a German native speaker, who disabused me of my misconception.

For me, in the end, this was a harmless error. A young girl who lives on the ground floor of our building wasn’t as lucky when she unwittingly stumbled into the snares of an embarrassing false cognate the other week. The girl in question, who on occassion attempts to showcase her English skills in my presence, announced during a brief exchange in the stairwell that she had “not douched today” – in German, “duschen” means “to shower,” but the word has quite a different meaning in English. This was a bit of personal trivia which I would have gladly been spared.

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.


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).

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…).

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.”)