Category Archives: translation

Historical tensions

Language is inseparable from its social and political contexts. This truism is never more apparent than during the translation process, when adequate equivalents for seemingly straightforward terms can be elusive. Historical circumstance is often the cause when words resist direct translation. Take the simple German term “Nachrüstung,” for example. While generally used to refer to the “upgrading” or “retrofitting” of something (e.g. a house or car), in the context of the Cold War, it refers to NATO’s plans to “upgrade” (i.e. expand and modernize) its nuclear arsenal in Western Europe, as part of the Double-Track Decision of 1979, which was adopted in response to growing Soviet nuclear strength. In the debate that erupted in Germany about whether to allow the US to station dozens of new Pershing II missiles on German soil, the scheme was soon referred to as the “Nachrüstung” – i.e. “are you for it or against it?”

Three decades later, with the world still fortunately intact and nuclear winter averted, the translator confronts the following sentence: “Anfang 1984 befanden sich die Ost-West-Beziehungen angesichts der Nachrüstung in Westeuropa auf dem Tiefpunkt.”

A direct translation would read: “At the beginning of 1984 East-West relations were at a low point due to the retrofitting in Western Europe.”

For obvious reasons, there is no single term that works as a translation for “Nachrüstung.” The translator must recognize the historical context in order to arrive at an adapted equivalent. “Rearmament” can work as a translation for “Nachrüstung” in other contexts, but here it would be quite misleading. I eventually used “NATO’s deployment of medium-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe” (the Pershing II, with a range of 1000 miles, was designed to replace the Pershing I, which only flew half as far). However, other solutions are possible. “The intensification of the arms race” (or similar) could work as an alternative, but that elides over the fact that the German source text is referring to a specific historical episode, and not the Cold War arms race generally.

Linearity in academic writing

Expectations and standards in the English-speaking world surrounding the proper way to wage an argument in an academic paper are far from universal – indeed, in German and English “rhetorical culture” differing expectations prevail in a variety of areas, not least with a view to the need for “linearity” in argumentational flow. In line with the principle that the author should “pity the reader,” English academic texts tend to construct arguments in a very linear, transparent fashion; the discussion moves from one point to the next in a highly deliberate manner, and even when the focus of discussion shifts, there is a pronounced effort to manufacture smooth transitions. In the German academic tradition, by contrast, far less emphasis is placed on linear argumentational flow. German academic papers frequently adopt highly indirect lines of argument that do not take the reader on a clear route from point A to B; rhetorical strategies exhibiting a high degree of “digressiveness” are common, and German papers may deliberately jump from close discussion of one point to another, leaving the logical connection between the two points merely implied, like clues in a mystery novel. Part and parcel with this digressiveness is the commonality of the “Exkurs” (excursus) – i.e. digressional exposition on a non-essential topic – a practice that has no real equivalent in present-day Anglo-American academic writing.

The core problem that results for the translator from this aspect of German academic writing is the tendency for German papers – when translated directly – to sometimes make a volatile, erratic impression in English, as if the author were incapable of delivering a focused argument. In extreme cases, the expositional sections of a German paper can have an extremely “scattershot” structure, with multiple short paragraphs of one to two lines addressing seemingly tangential points. Anglo-American peer reviewers invariably pounce on such weakness, interpreting them as symptomatic of an unstructured first draft. In rendering such judgement, however, the Anglo-American reader is almost certainly unaware of the culture-centric nature of his or her perceptions, which are rooted in consensual practice that is far from universal.

While we can exhort German natives to write more like Anglos, what damage do we potentially render to the German academic tradition?

The German book review

Beyond specific linguistic and terminological problems that arise in the translation process – the usual fodder for this blog – I have also written previously about meta-level differences that complicate the translation process, such as the triadic-heading problem. Structural differences can emerge in a wide range of areas and are one reason why translation is so much more difficult than it may first appear. Clearly, the academic cultures in Germany and the English-speaking world are informed by divergent traditions and practices that can generate significant problems for the translator. Such structural problems are occasionally so significant they can completely sabotage the translation project. The differences between the German and English book review furnishes an interesting example in this regard.

In the English-speaking world, the academic book review aims first and foremost to critically evaluate the book’s ideas, and may also discuss issues like style, relevance, or related works. The organizational structure of the book is an ancillary issue that is at most addressed in passing. In the German-book review, however, a key aim is to provide an overview of the book’s organizational structure. The German book review typically proceeds by systematically recounting each section of work, critiquing the book within a step-by-step summary of its contents. This “systematic synopsis” approach is wholly foreign to English-speaking readers, and makes translating the German book review an impossible task insofar as publication is sought in an English-language journal that has massively different expectations concerning the form that a book review should take.

This is an extreme example of a structural problem, as there is literally no way to finesse the problem as a translator. The best approach is to inform the customer at the earliest possible point that different expectations may prevail at the journal where submission is sought. Yet the problem is interesting, for it is illustrative of how academic cultures may entertain expectations that are universally accepted as a priori truths, and, as such, are rendered nearly invisible. The constructed and consensual nature of cultural practice is perhaps never more evident than during the translation process.

Judicious cutting

Comparing the German edition of Die protestanische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus with Gordon Wells’s superb new translation (2002), I am reminded again that simply cutting material is occasionally the only judicious strategy for dealing with some specific and recurring problems. One common difficulty in translating German is the “auch” problem, which I have written about previously here. In German, “auch” frequently has a specific function that “also” lacks, and which is hard to render effectively without disturbing the English sentence.

Let us turn directly to an example: in The Protestant Ethic, Weber writes: “Deutlich zeigt sich hier die Abweichung von der mittelalterlichen Haltung. Auch Thomas von Aquinas hatte jenen Satz interpretiert. Aber nach ihm ist die Arbeit nur naturali ratione notwendig zur Erhaltung des Lebens des einzelnen und der Gesamtheit” (p. 142, 2002, Anaconda Verlag).

A translation of the second sentence that seeks to preserve the full meaning of the original German would be: “Thomas Aquinas, among others, interpreted this sentence.” However, Wells correctly recognizes that in English, the phrasing “among others” is awkward and superfluous, as Weber does not subsequently make mention of any other individuals. Thus, he opts for the following translation instead: “According to Thomas Aquinas’s interpretation of the Pauline principle, work is only necessary ‘naturali ratione’ for the preservation of the life of the individual and the community” (p. 108f, 2002, Penguin).

The decision to simply cut “auch” here is a good one, and a mark of Wells’s talent as a translator, as he does not attempt to adhere slavishly to the German when there are excellent reasons for judicious intervention. In my experience, “auch” is a term that is often employed rather reflexively by German writers, and while its use in German may be permissible in a specific case, its removal may be the only logical solution in light of the transformation necessary when converting to English, for “among others” cannot simply be inserted inconspicuously into an English text, and English readers will balk at cryptic reference to “unmentioned others” that is left to stand without further elaboration. Clearly, beyond the words on the page, how the reader will react to the text is a crucial consideration, and cannot simply be ignored.

In this vein, another term that is employed frequently in a reflexive manner by German writers in ways that are curious when one translates into English is “insbesondere” (“in particular”). Wells remarks on this in his introduction, which I would like to quote at length: “The second major area of difficulty is that of syntax, or sentence structure. Even by the standards of German academic writing, Weber’s sentences are inordinately long, with one subordinate clause being embedded in another like Russian matryoschka dolls. No doubt this was a result of the fecundity of Weber’s thought processes, whereby he constantly sought to further qualify and refine his statements. However, at times this almost seems to have become a mannerism, so that (to give an example) he can rarely bear to simply state ‘most,’ without adding, in parenthesis, ‘but by no means all.’ He also seems to have a predilection for phrases meaning ‘in particular’ (ibid., lxxi).”

On a side note, it is interesting how Wells’s writing here is clearly influenced itself by German syntax, as is evident in his use of “whereby” (wobei) and “so that” (sodass).

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.