Category Archives: translation pitfalls

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.”

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.



Framework conditions

Translating the extremely common German term “Rahmenbedingungen” into clear English is fraught with difficulty. The standard and widely accepted translation – “framework conditions” – suffers from one crucial problem: it is not English. The New York Times, for example, has only used “framework conditions” five times (!) in its entire publication history, in all instances to refer to statements made by a German politician or executive. Considering how useful and ubiquitous the term is in German, it surprises me there is a lack of a sound equivalent in English and that the various translations offered at LEO and other dictionaries are so deficient. While there might be good reason to stick to “framework conditions” in some instances – for example, if you are translating a legal document from the European Commission – this translation will generally strike English native speakers as both murky and odd. Accordingly, it is not a viable solution if you are seeking to create an English text that is both clear and professional. “Rahmenbedingungen” can have a few different meanings based on the specific context, but usually it refers to the business and regulatory environment in which a company or economic actor is operating. When German politicians talk about the need to “create good framework conditions” for X, they mean we should pass laws and policies in order to ensure X has a business, tax and regulatory environment in which it can thrive. In a great many cases, the intended meaning is that government subsidy programs should be enacted or reformed to benefit X. All of this is completely unclear when the English reader is confronted with the puzzling assertion about the need for “good framework conditions”, or simply a “good framework” (Rahmen). The latter assertion is particularly opaque because it seems to refer to abstract ideas about how something is perceived (viz. interpretive frameworks). Considering the intended meaning of the German and the inadequacy of established translations, I advocate a context-based descriptive equivalent rather than a misleading standalone noun (such as “basic conditions”, which obfuscates more than it clarifies). Often, the best solution is to refer to the need for good “regulations”, “tax policy” or “business conditions” (or some combination thereof) in the economic subsector in question. Explicit reference to government subsidy or regional development programs might also be expedient. It all depends on the specific context.

The most interesting aspect of this problem is that it highlights divergent national traditions in economic thought. In the German context, state-driven industrial policy and economic planning are taken as a given, such that oblique reference to “framework conditions” is sufficient to convey the need for centralized planning approaches which, from an Anglo perspective, might seem like the first step on the road to serfdom. On a practical level, this means it might be necessary when translating to expressly state that “government intervention into the private sector” is required for these “business conditions” to be achieved, in order to make the situation clear for English readers.

Did I mention the term is fraught with difficulty?

Impenetrability in translation

A perennial question in the field of translation concerns to what extent the translator should play an active role in intepreting the source text. In many instances, minor acts of intepretation are simply necessary in order to provide an accurate translation. For example, the present tense (einfaches Präsenz) can be used in German to refer to either present or future states. A press release in German, for instance, might begin with Firma X launcht neues Dingsbums (“Company X Launches New Widget”) even when the product in question has not yet been released. While the English translation above (also in present tense) would only work if the widget had been or was on the verge of being released, in German the launch might be scheduled for 5 weeks from now. Thus, the translator needs to assess the context at hand and make a decision about whether the present or future tense is needed in English. Interpretation is unavoidable.

This is a fairly straight-forward example of the problem, however, as the translator’s mission is clear. At the other end of the spectrum, when the source text is more complex and ambiguous, one can spend hours pondering just a few words and how they should be best composed. One learns that sometimes even a great translation is indecipherable when the source text itself eludes a clear reading.

Take, for example, the following paragraph, which came from a philosophical text that I recently translated:

So kann bereits der Bezug auf einen anderen Menschen ein „Mehr“ und ein „Darüber hinaus“ bedeuten, in dem ich mich selbst überschreite, ebenso das Transzendieren einer konkreten Situation, eines gesellschaftlichen status quo. Deshalb bedarf es des Begriffs des Unbedingten, um der Falle der „schlechten Unendlichkeit“ zu entkommen. Er bezeichnet nämlich sowohl einen grundlosen, selbst nicht mehr von einem anderen bedingten Grund alles Bedingten als dessen Möglichkeitsbedingung als auch das Vollkommene.

The last sentence here is fairly out of control. Although I feel confident that my English translation accurately recapitulates the constellation of signs established by the author in her sentence, it remains impenetrable (to my puny mind, at least):

“Specifically, the concept of the unconditional designates both a basis for everything conditional which is itself without basis and not conditional on another basis as the condition of possibility for everything conditional, as well as the ‘perfect’ (Vollkommene).”

On the other hand, this is perhaps not the best example of the “interpretational duty” placed on the translator, as the sentence, despite its complexity, can be “effectively” translated. In between the two examples provided in this blog post there is a myriad range of translation problems that involve deciding how much one can and should deviate from and/or interpret the (apparent) meaning of the source text. What is the text’s message? The translator is invariably a major determinant in shaping the reader’s “take away.” There is no way around this problem, as the issue concerns the inherent non-compatability of linguistic systems and the translator’s position as a mediator and referee.


“As” is an interesting word. Ever looked it up in the dictionary? Mine contains 43 different definitions for the term. “As” can be used in so many different contexts it almost eludes definition. Yet in its multipurpose utility, this tiny, seemingly irrelevant grammatical particle serves an essential linguistic function. As an adverb, conjunction, pronoun, or preposition, “as”  plays many roles, interlinking parts of speech and giving sentences form. One could describe it as the glue that holds the language together.

Needless to say, the German word “als” is not directly equivalent to its English counterpart. Like “as,” it is used as a comparative particle (diese Schuhe sind bequemer als die anderen) and conjunction (ich war froh, als sie endlich anriefen), but on the whole, it is used less frequently and has a much more restrictive range of use. However, “als” does take on a particular function that “as” lacks. The differences are subtle at first glance. Take the following sentence as an example: Die Beamten sind als Vetreter das öffentliche Gesicht der Verwaltung (“The officials are as representatives the public face of local government”). Here “als” is used to set up an equivalance between two things; the “officials” are in effect stated to be the equivelent of “representatives.” The direct English translation is acceptable and fairly clear, but rings a little bit strange. Why is this? In English, “as” is also used as a preposition to set up an equivalence, but this equivalence is a relative one, and usually does not have the 1:1 substitutional meaning found in many German constructions. For example: Der Auftragnehmer übernimmt die Aufbereitung am Standort X als technischer Betriebsführer für die Auftraggeberin als Betreiber (“The contracted party assumes responsibility for processing at location X as the technical manager for the contracting party as operator”). Translated directly, this sentence is somewhat confusing in English. What is meant by the “contracting party as operator”? “As” in English lacks the rigorous 1:1 substitutional equivalence implied by “als” in the German source sentence. A more readable translation would simply read: “for the contracting party, who is the operator.”

This is actually a fairly common problem when translating from German to English. An awareness for the non-compatability of “als” and “as” in certain contexts can help one to identify why the target sentence is not working and how it can be fixed.