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?

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”?



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.