Category Archives: translation problems

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”?



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.

Non-standard terminology

Certainly most non-translators would be surprised at how often the translator encounters words in a foreign language for which there is no generally agreed upon translation. This is clearly one factor that severly limits the capabilities of translation software. Google Translate works by sifting mountains of reference translations. For standard terms in clearly formulated sentences, this sifting strategy can work quite well. As soon as non-standard terms crop up, however, Google Translate stumbles, not least due to the fact that many reference translations are of questionable quality or applicability. The problems of ambiguity that plague the task of translation are regularly apparent when one searches for hard-to-translate terms at online dictionaries like LEO or reference sources such as the EU’s database of legal translations.

I confront terms for which there is no preexisting entry at LEO or clearly understandable direct equivalent in English nearly every day. Here are a few:

  • tiefenstufenabhängige Baumdurchwurzelungsstrategien (soil-depth-dependant tree rooting strategies)
  • Holzhackschnitzelheizkraftwerk (combined heat and power plant that runs on wood chips; try to say that one three times fast)
  • Kommunikationsaufforderungsakte (acts by which one prompts another to communicate)
  • Verfüllkörper (the body of backfilled material within a revegetated strip mine)
  • Legalitätszentriert (adjective indicating a focus on aspects of legality; literally, “legality-centered”)
  • Nachverhandlungsanfälligkeiten (noun designating things which are subject to future negotiation)
  • Rovingsgelege (I forgot what this is; something to do with repair of wind turbine rotors)
  • Granulatmusterzugschublade (component in a roller compactor for the manufacture of pharmaceutical products)
  • Ver- und Entsorgungsmedia (funny compound in German designating “media” for both “supply” and “disposal” – a highly ambiguous term when translated directly)Note that none of these terms (except for Holzhackschnitzelheizkraftwerk) yields even a single hit at Google. So how does Google Translate handle them? Well, it doesn’t.

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.

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.

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.)

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.

German resumes

Due to the structural characteristics of the German language, the translation of itemized lists often poses a significant challenge for the translator. The difficulty is related specifically to the key role that verbal nouns play in the language; “substantivized verbs,” as they are called, are often grouped together with nouns in sentence fragments that elude direct translation. Much to the chagrin of the translator, almost any verb can be substantivized in German, including Durchführung (the substantive form of “to execute” or “to carry out,” i.e. “the carrying-out”), Übergabe (i.e. “the hand-over” or “transfer” of a thing), or Neuaufstellung (i.e. “the renewed setup” or “repositioning”).

In German lists―and this may surprise those unfamiliar with the language―normal verbs are often completely omitted in lieu of verbal noun forms. German resumes, for example, invariably contain extended lists of previous accomplishments―all without the use of a single verb. Typical resume items, translated directly, might include: “Implementation of software provisioning,” “Carrying-out of system hand-over,” or “Collaboration in customer communications,” etc. (It’s interesting to note the contrast here between Geman and English resume-writing conventions. The English resume writer is encouraged to make generous use of active verb forms; the German resume, by contrast, is conspicuous for its abundant use of passive constructions―which should in fact be simply attributed to the language’s grammatical conventions).

Faced with an extensive list of items and no verbs in sight, the astute translator will do his best to convert the text into sensible English. Often verbal nouns can be converted into more active forms. But this is not always easy. Here we arrive at a perennial problem in translation: The semantic function of the source text may not be clear, yet an interpretive act is required. Compromise, patience, and creativity are needed on the part of the translator.