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Common misnomers

Even well-educated English native speakers regularly bungle the following two terms in spoken contexts:

  1. “home in”: When “focusing” on something, English natives will often incorrectly assert they are “honing in on” [a thing], thus confounding “to hone” (to sharpen or whet) with the correct phrasing “home in on” (as in a heat-seeking missile). Interestingly, even extremely intelligent and well-read natives commit this error.
  2. “phenomena” vs. “phenomenon”: For some reason English natives will habitually use the singular “phenomenon” when meaning to refer to the plural “phenomena”. And even when they deploy the plural correctly, you can often hear the cerebral gears turning during the slight pause the speaker inserts prior to enunciating the word.

The auch error

“Auch” is such a simple word. And yet it is responsible for one of the most tenacious problems in German-to-English translation, a problem that has been a source of error in millions of documents. Incredibly, I have never seen this issue discussed at a blog or online dictionary; it is almost never recognized, neither by German native speakers authoring English texts, nor by professional translators.

I have written previously about this issue in two previous blog posts; both of these post fail to describe the problem in a straight-forward manner, however. After over a decade of pondering the “auch error”, I hope to clearly define it in this post.

“Auch” is used in a specific way in German that is extremely common but lacks a direct counterpart in English. The crucial difference is this: In German, “auch” can be used to introduce an item within a given category while also implying that other, as-of-yet unnamed items apply. In this way, “auch” and “also” only have partially overlapping meanings (viz. nur teilweise überlappende Bedeutungsumfänge). In numerous instances, they are direct cognates. Except in the above case.

Let us turn to a very simple example: imagine someone asks, “What did you buy at the store?” In German, it would be permissible to answer “I also bought apples”, meaning “I bought apples, among other things.” For an English native speaker, “I also bought apples” is, of course, an absurd and ungrammatical response. Crucially, in English, “also” cannot be used to cite an example unless there has been previous explicit mention of other items in the category of concern.

This problem may seem totally banal and simple when described in such straight-forward terms. However, when the text is more complicated, the “auch” problem can be much harder to detect and address. Here is another example sentence: Spracherwerb bedeutet auch den Erwerb einzelsprachlicher Perspektivierungsmuster. Interestingly, translating this sentence into English correctly is not possible without seeing the larger context. If the text previously mentioned an example of “what language acquisition involves,” we could render “auch” directly as “also” (thus arriving at “Language learning also involves the acquisition of patterns of perspective native to that language.”) However, in the actual context, no prior example was cited. Accordingly, there are three possibilities for dealing with “auch”:

(1) delete it completely (I discuss why and how this strategy was applied by the translator of Max Weber here);

(2) render “auch” as “among other things” (or similar); or

(3) rephrase by adding more specific reference to the existence of an overarching category, and then transition to the example with “including” (viz. “Language learning has many component elements, including …).

Ultimately, I elected to use a variant of option 3. My translation reads: “One aspect of language learning is the acquisition of patterns of perspective native to that language.”

Knowledge transfer cont’d

I previously wrote here about the lack of an English equivalent for the common German term Wissenstransfer. While “knowledge transfer” is established in Anglophone microeconomics, it does not have the broad meaning of Wissenstransfer, which is used in German to designate various phenomena, from the sharing of academic insights with policymakers to the international spread of philosophical thought. The lack of a direct equivalent for Wissenstransfer is a translation problem of such severity that non-native speakers of English seem to be in a state of denial, as evidenced by edits recently made to the English Wikipedia entry for “knowledge transfer,” where the term is normally defined as a concept in “organizational theory” that relates to “transferring knowledge from one part of the organization to another.” At the end of the first paragraph, an unknown editor has contributed the following clarification: “The term has also been applied to the transfer of knowledge being transferred [sic] at the international level.” Edits to Wikipedia articles made by non-native speakers are always a joy, particularly when atrocious grammar is paired with errors of content. At the end of this sentence, we find two footnotes to substantiate the assertion: The first is a reference to an article published in the Economic Times of India that was auto-generated (!) based on a news feed from somewhere else (note that “knowledge transfer” appears nowhere in the article aside from the title, where it is used as part of the larger compound “scientific knowledge transfer”). The second is a reference to an EU document produced as part of the Innovation Union, which means German natives were maybe (just maybe!) involved in its authorship.

In any event, Lord Grey’s successful effort to squelch the pro-German factions in British Parliament who advocated remaining neutral in 1914 means we now live in a world of Anglophone hegemony, a world in which a Professor of Political Science at Yale University, when asked by your humble author to define “knowledge transfer,” can unabashedly respond, “What in the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Marktlücken and Codified Error

I previously introduced the term “codified error” to refer to the tendency for clearly erroneous or problematic translations to become widely accepted as standard terminology. The lack of good equivalents for common terms is a widespread and often underestimated problem. Often the only solution for ensuring a professional result in English is to take an adaptive approach that expresses the term resisting translation in a short phrase. A good example: The common German word Marktlücke is generally translated as “market gap” or “market niche.”  Both of these accepted translations are inaccurate, however. The German term refers to an unmet customer need or opportunity for entering the marketplace. In English, the slightly alternate phrasing “gap in the market” is a good solution. Another way to express the German is to refer to a “market niche that is underserved” or “not yet served.”

This type of transformation is often unavoidable if one wishes to offer an English text that is free from usage problems, as there are widespread terminological incompatibilities between German and English that cannot simply be papered over with improvised yet incongruous loan words that are both stylistically questionable and semantically misleading.

Knowledge transfer

The American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf argued that language and perception are inextricably intertwined. While this idea, known as the “Whorfian hypothesis,” fell into disrepute in the 1960s, linguists have shown a renewed interest in “linguistic determinism” in recent years, presenting robust evidence in various studies that language shapes basic cognitive processes, including one’s sense of direction, numeracy, and perception of color. Although it would be a mistake to overemphasize the extent to which language structures experience, the opponents of the  Whorfian hypothesis – such as Steven Pinker, who argues that thought always “precedes” linguistic representation – seem far too eager to dismiss the strong empirical and common-sense evidence for linguistically driven cognition. Indeed, my everyday experience dealing with nuances of meaning in English and German has made me a strong proponent of the view that language mediates perception, even though it can be extremely difficult to disentangle language from culture, as many apparent cases of divergence in “perceptual habitus,” as it were, can easily be ascribed to divergence in cultural experience. Yet not always.

One excellent example of “grammar-driven perception” concerns the ease with which the German language can often represent abstract domains of activity as concrete “things” in ways that have no direct analogue in English. Indeed, this Verdinglichung (or “reification”) of notions that appear to English speakers to be quite “abstract” is a crucial difference between German and English. This difference is related to how German relies more extensively on nouns forms, or Substantivierungen, to express meaning. This linguistic difference is unrelated to “cultural” experience, but is related to how the language structures the modes of expression that one is “pushed” toward, like the ruts in a dirt road, when one seeks to make pronouncements about the world.

Let us turn to an example: “Wissenstransfer” is an interesting term that is well established in German but has no real equivalent in English. While online dictionaries such as LEO invariably translate the term as “knowledge transfer” in English, this  translation is inadequate: not only is it odd and ambiguous, it is simply inaccurate. In German, Wissenstransfer refers to the “activity of applying insights from academic research to the domain of real-world practice” (my definition). To my knowledge, there is no overarching term for this activity in English. Accordingly, the only solution when moving between German and English is to flesh out the intended meaning with a detailed explanation. In the text I was working on today, for example, it was stated at one point that “[the economists] sind auch im Wissenstrasfer aktiv.” The direct translation would read: “The economists are also active in knowledge transfer.” My more accurate translation that is sensitive to the absence of this term in English reads: “The economists also work to disseminate their research findings among policy-makers, thus encouraging their real-world application.”

While I believe this is an accurate translation, notice that in my version , “Wissenstransfer” is no longer a “thing,” but rather a fairly abstract field of endeavor. While this change to the “framing of the referent” was unproblematic in the aforementioned text, in other contexts this type of modification can fatally undermine the translation, because the activity is no longer conceived of in superordinate terms as a “thing” that can be set in easy relation to other “objects”. As a result, it becomes extremely difficult to refer to the “thing” on a repeated basis (among other problems that I will not even attempt to unpack here).

In any event, beyond the various implications that German’s tendency to reify the abstract has for the “conceptual habitus” of its speakers, I think a sheer awareness for this point of difference between German and English can improve one’s skill as a translator, for it allows one to recognize the underlying reasons as to why a translation is not working, thus allowing problems to be eradicated at the root.

Der Deppen-Binde-Strich

As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And one can only suppose that good intentions animated the marketing gurus who designed the signage for my local DIY store, aptly named “Hellweg.”


What is meant here? “Bauten & Garten”? “Bauarten & Garten”? Upon closer inspection, “Bauen & Garten” must be the intended meaning, but correct grammar ’tis not.

I actually found this egregious eye-sore of an error to be less annoying than the following example of the
“Deppenapostroph” (“Apostrophe of the Typographically


The apostrophe, of course, is upside down. But who’s perfect?

Renewable energy and bad compound nouns

Translating a text on renewable energy today I stumbled across the phrase “erneuerbare Energietechnologien,” a German term that has gained broad usage and which appears to be a direct translation of “renewable energy technologies.” It occurred to me, however, that the German version is actually quite strange, as it involves the formation of a compound noun between “energy” and “technologies.” The adjective “renewable” thus refers to the “technology.” Yet this is all wrong. The “technology” itself is not renewable, the “energy” is. In English, of course, “renewable energy” in this context is a compound modifier, and it could be hyphenated as “renewable-energy technologies.” We are talking about technologies that involve “renewable energy,” not “renewable technologies” that involve energy, as the German word formation implies.

For me, this is just another example of how creeping Anglicisms are destroying German. Wehrt Euch!

Run-on examples

For a non-native speaker, Wolfgang Münchau, the Financial Times columnist, has an impeccable command of English. One does see his native German shining through in spots, though. Take the following use of “for example” that appeared in his most recent piece:

“In the absence of political leadership, they apply the rules as they are, for example when they recommend brutal and politically suicidal wage cuts in Latvia, when they apply accession criteria to the eurozone with no flexibility, or when they produce ineffective financial regulation.” Although not incorrect, the hard transition to “for example” in this sentence strikes me as particularly German.

The conclusion of the column, as well, is a bit funny: “But I never thought that we would ever celebrate a central bank as the only political institution that really works in Europe. How did we get there?” Shouldn’t this read, “How did we get here?”

Grading systems

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

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

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

A convincing translation?

While translating a press release the other day I was again reminded that a translator must go about his work with an extremely sharp ear for nuances in meaning. Although two words may initially appear to occupy the same semiotic space, careful reflection often reveals subtle discrepancies in meaning that must be carefully negotiated. The English word “dog,” for example, may have the same designatory function as the German word “Hund,” but in many cases the range of semiotic overlap and/or divergence between apparent synonyms in two languages is not so clear cut (this overlap is known as “synonomy” in linguistics). Particularly startling is when words that have been treated as synonyms by translators and dictionaries suddenly reveal themselves as rather different in common contexts. German-English dictionaries, for example, invariably offer “convincing” as a translation for “überzeugend.” This translation, however, often strikes the native speaker of English as inappropriate, as testfied by the number of forum entries at LEO concerning this word.

“Compelling” is often a suitable alternative, but even this word fails to accurately recapitulate the meaning of “überzeugend” in many contexts. “Überzeugend” is often used to tout the high-quality of a product or service, a function that “compelling” and “convincing” do not usually take on in English. A free translation is called for in such cases, as others have recognized. This realization requires an inductive leap, however, so it’s understandable that many translators still resort to “convincing” for lack of a more inspired alternative.In any event, “convincing” must be regarded as an error in many contexts. Those with a sharp sense for linguistic nuance will quickly recognize that “convincing” is often used as a descriptor in situations when the veracity of a statement could be subject to question, as in “the words of President Bush were very convincing.” In this way, as “convincing” is often used to counteract doubts about a given fact or situation, it is loaded with a particular undercurrent of meaning, and is not equivalent to “überzeugend” in the sense of a wholesale endorsement of a product or service’s merits.

To return to the press release mentioned at the beginning of this post, the German text read as follows: “Die Firma … hat ein überzeugendes Zukunftskonzept erarbeitet.”If one were to translate this as “a convincing strategy for the future,” the English reader would be left wondering why it is necessary to affirm that the strategy is “convincing.” This is a clear pitfall for the unwary translator, as the German text wants to say something else entirely.My translation was: “The company has developed … a business strategy with a promising outlook for the future.”