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.

Polemics in the German press

Although German newspapers entertain standards of objectivity quite different from their American counterparts – German articles often have an openly polemic bent, with positions advanced in a forthright manner that would surprise the uninitiated US reader – I was dumbstruck by a recent article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung discussing the Deutsche Telekom scandal.

The following sentence left me baffled: “Finanzminister Peer Steinbrück (SPD) hat die Private-Equity-Gesellschaft Blackstone (”Heuschrecke”) nicht zuletzt deswegen als Minderheitsaktionär an Bord geholt, um dem Telekom-Management Dampf zu machen.” (My translation: Finance Minister Peer Steinburck (SPD) brought the private-equity firm Blackstone (”locust”) on board as a minority shareholder in part to exert pressure on Deutsche Telekom’s management).

While many German politicians are fond of employing the term Heuschrecke (”locust”) to attack the ostensibly pernicious influence of hedge funds, the term is a highly politicized one, and the off-handed manner with which it is used here is totally inappropriate. There is also a glibness to the gloss that I find highly annoying (but which may in fact simply relate to the brevity that often characterizes German parenthetical insertions): no explanatory remarks are offered, the term is simply interjected as if there were a 1:1 equivalence between “Blackstone” and “locust.”

What should one make of this? Was the author of the article simply unaware of the loaded nature of the term, which the editors subsequently overlooked? Or has this description of hedge funds now achieved a level of mainstream acceptance that no qualificatory remarks are required? Both of these alternatives are cause for concern.

Reactions to Krugman

I went to see Paul Krugman speak earlier this evening at the Freie Universität. Krugman primarily discussed his new book, “Conscience of a Liberal,” rehashing the book’s arguments for the audience. Krugman’s main point is that inequality in the US has risen dramatically in recent decades, to the point where income disparities now resemble Gilded Age America, when robber barons and J.D. Rockefeller set the national agenda. Krugman asserts that the middle-class and largely egalitarian America of the 1950s was created – not simply born on its own – as a by-product of the New Deal’s social policies. (Taxes on corporations and the rich, for example, were significantly lower prior to WW2.) In recent decades, however, many redistributive mechanisms and populist policies have been undermined by “movement conservatism,” an informal alliance between conservative think tanks, religious leaders, and monied interests that has been an extremely powerful force in American politics. In his book, Krugman heralds the decline of movement conservatism and encourages the passage of progressive social policies – such as universal health care – to put the middle class back on solid footing.

While his talk certainly wasn’t disappointing, I felt like it was intentionally “dumbed down” somewhat for the German audience, and I would have preferred to hear more on his view of the current state of the US economy and financial markets. There was a Q&A session after the talk, in which I asked Krugman to comment on: 1) whether of not the US Consumer Price Index has been distorted for political reasons (in his new book, “Bad Money,” Kevin Phillips, an extremely respected economist, claims that the CPI is understated by several percent – see John Williams’s site for more details); and 2) the veracity of the depictions in John Perkins’s book, “Confessions of an Economic Hitman.”

Not surprisingly, Krugman didn’t lend much credence to the CPI theory or John Perkins. Krugman said he personally knows and trusts many of the economists at the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, but admitted that other government stats have been manipulated in recent years for political reasons. Regarding John Perkins, Krugman said that he was somewhat incredulous when he read certain parts of “Confessions” (a reaction I also had) and doubts that everything Perkins claims is one-hundred-percent true. (Krugman did allow, however, that “you never know” and that the kind of corruption Perkins describes does occur.)

Biking home from the talk, I recalled Foucault’s famous inversion of the dictum “Knowledge is power.” For Foucault, the reverse was true: “Power is knowledge,” i.e. the powerful use their influence to manufacture “hegemonic narratives” that gain widespread acceptance not for their inherent truth, but rather due to the interests that stand to benefit from their dissemination. This is essentially the argument Krugman makes about movement conservatism – one key to understanding its ascendancy is to look at how powerful corporate interests have been expressed through the funding of right-wing think tanks and other institutions that formulate conservative doctrine. The interesting fact here is that many of the academics who rise through the ranks in these institutions are not simply bending their arguments to “serve their masters,” so to speak, but rather that selective factors are at work to weed out “non-believers” and promote those who truly harbor conservative worldviews, regardless of their ultimate academic merits.

Considering Krugman’s rejection of the “conspiracy theories” I queried him about, I can’t help but wondering if similar selective factors have been at work in Krugman’s career. Quite simply, What are the limits of debate? Could it be that Krugman simply represents a liberal counterpart to the conservative opinion leaders he maligns? Krugman, despite his left-wing views, is still a “mainstream voice” – the core validity of the US government and economic system is not cast into question. I certainly don’t consider myself a radical – I believe in markets and the need for a strong national defense (to put it simplistically) – but this is an interesting point to consider. The commentators who truly excoriate US policies – Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, Gore Vidal, Alexander Cockburn, James Howard Kunstler, et al. – find no voice in mainstream media. Is Krugman merely a blue-state Bill O’Reilly?

Krugman in Berlin

Paul Krugman, the celebrated New York Times columnist, is in Berlin this week, and will be speaking on the 22nd at the Freie Universität. In his latest blog entry, Krugman writes about the “jelly donut” myth, which still has traction in the US despite its blatant falsehood. JFK’s statement – “Ich bin ein Berliner” – was, of course, grammatically correct, but can be willfully misinterpreted as meaning “I am a jelly donut.” (A possible equivalent would be Pope Ratzinger saying “I am a New Yorker” and all of Germany thinking he meant the Reuben sandwich.)

Krugman is an extremely important voice in America at the moment. His latest book, “The Conscience of a Liberal,” explores the political underpinnings of widening inequality in the US. Krugman draws attention to the startling fact that the average US worker’s inflation-adjusted income has barely risen since the early 1980s – despite two decades of rising productivity. The earnings of those in upper-income brackets, however, have soared – particularly the earnings of the top 1 percent of the population – a fact Krugman attributes to the rise of movement conservatism and regressive tax and social policies.

As a NYT columnist, Krugman is an important whistle-blower and fierce opponent of the Bush administration’s policies. An economist by training, Krugman regularly provides valuable insights in his column and blog about the US economy and the current mortgage and credit crises. I’ll be extremely interested to see what Krugman has to say on Thursday.


The perceptive translator will notice that there are clear differences between the use of term “approximately” in German and English. Often abbreviated “ca.” (the term “circa” can be applied to all types of figures in German, not just to date estimations, as in English) “approximately” is used with much greater frequency in German texts. The proliferate and seemingly reflexive use of “ca.” in German is certainly related to the ease with which it can be inserted in front of any number, and perhaps also due to the pedantic focus on accuracy its use can convey (a German speciality). While the abbreviation “ca.” is often rendered annoyingly as “approx.” by translators (as if true allegiance to a source text is demonstrated with a superficial mimicry of its abbreviated forms), it is probably better to drop the term from the English text completely in many cases, particularly when its inclusion seems nonsensical, as in the following sentence I ran across recently: “In Baden-Württemberg wird die Luftqualität an derzeit ca. 41 Luftmessstationen regelmäßig überwacht.” So how many measurement stations are there? 41 and a half?

Here’s another good one, discussing a museum replica of President Kennedy’s Lincoln X-100: “Eine ganz besondere Einrichtung erlaubte es, den hinteren rechten Sitz um ca. 25 cm hydraulisch zu heben, um dem Präsidenten einen besseren Ausblick zu verschaffen.” Approximately 25 cm? Is the actual figure 25.3 cm? The translator should not feel obliged to slavingly transcribe this utterly useless insertion of “ca.”

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.”

A happy end(ing)

The German tendency to freely adopt English terms and expressions has been widely observed. Yet beyond the butchering of the German language that can often result from the wholesale borrowing of English expressions, the German-to-English translator is confronted by a particular challenge when required to “re-translate” expressions which are putatively English but which have been invested with new meaning in German. For example, what exactly are “Servicedienstleistungen” other than just “Dienstleistungen”: service-services, perhaps?

The German use of the term “dumping” can also be highly befuddling. In English, a company can be accused of engaging in “price dumping” when it sells its products at extremely low prices to undercut competitors – the products are, so to speak, “dumped” on the market. From this perspective, the German neologism “Lohndumping” sounds particularly incongruous for the native speaker of English because “wages” cannot be “dumped” in any figurative sense.

It’s also confusing when English terms are used in German texts for no apparent reason. In a PowerPoint presentation I recently translated for a large German IT provider, for example, one slide discussed the regrettable tendency of customers to use service hotlines unnecessarily. This was identified as the “Hello Joe Problem.” What was the motivation for the invention of this phrase? Considering I’ve never met anyone in Germany named “Joe,” the name choice is all the more inexplicable.  Should this perhaps have been translation into English as the “‘Hallo Klaus Problem”?

Another comical malapropism is the German use of the expression “happy end,” which 82 million Germans have confused with “happy ending.” In English, of course, one is said to have “met a happy end” when one dies, which lends the German use of the expression a particularly macabre ring. Were the makers of the “Happy End” toilet paper brand aware of this linguistic mix up?

Can’t computers do that now?

One question I often hear when telling people I’m a translator is:“Can’t computers do that now?” I find this question surprising, as it exhibits a disturbing lack of awareness for what a translator actually does. Although it may not be all too surprising to hear this perception voiced by someone who has never learned a foreign language, even those with a grasp of the difficulties that pervade language translation often contend that the hurdles are merely technical, and that sooner or later machine translation will reach maturity. Indeed, if a computer program can beat Kasparov at chess, why can’t we develop one to master the task of translation?

Google seems to think it can, and has been touting the positive results of its statistic-based approach to machine translation. Whereas previous attempts to write translation programs involved efforts by linguists to define rules for transcribing text from one language to another, Google has thrown its weight behind a different approach in which reams of text are fed into a computer for the development of probability based models. Although advances have been made with this approach, and computers are likely to close the gap on human translators in coming years, it seems doubtful that a computer will ever surmount all of the hurdles facing machine translation. An interesting article in The Atlantic highlights some of the basic problems faced by machine translation, such as variance in word order and grammatical structure between languages. Far more problematic for development of an accurate and reliable translation program, however, are the idiomatic and cultural properties of language.

The panacea of intercultural exchange envisioned by some is complicated by the fact that computers don’t understand that institutional and cultural environments often inform specific texts. Translation is an act of negotiation, and sometimes suitable equivalents for certain expressions or terms do not exist. Oftentimes, the translator must heavily modify the target text to arrive at an appropriate adaptation. Take the following sentence, for example: “Die Gebaeude im Bezirk sind zu über 80 Prozent von gründerzeitlicher Altbausubstanz geprägt.” The real problem here, of course, is the word gründerzeitlich, a term that has no equivalent in English. (Google’s translation software doesn’t event attempt to deal with it, yielding “The buildings in the district are more than 80 percent from gründerzeitliche houses marked substance.”)

German readers know that the Gründerzeit was an historical period that generated a specific architectural style in Germany and Austria. English-speaking readers lack this context. An effective translation of the above sentence would take this realization into account and perhaps offer a gloss. Here’s what I came up with: “Over 80% of the buildings in the district were originally constructed in the German architectural period known as the Gründerzeit (“founding epoch”).

This doesn’t seem all that complicated on the face of it, but it requires a certain sensitivity to intercultural contexts, something that a computer program running on probability models lacks. There is literally no way to arrive at the formulation “originally constructed inthe architectural period” without an act of interpretation and awareness for one’s reader.

Round squares

I encountered a rather amusing translation problem the other day working on a text that discussed various models of urban development. The text spoke of a crescent-shaped housing block (the Royal Crescent in Bath, England) wrapping around a “kreisförmiger Platz.” Now, in English the term Platz means “square,” as in “city square,” which leads one to initially go about translating the above as “circular square” – a wonderful piece of nonsense.“Circular plaza” is a fitting alternative, but one is still left wondering why a city square is necessarily square shaped to begin with. The answer obviously lies in the geometric rigidities of the modern city, as squares in ancient cities are often irregularly shaped. The original Greek word for a city square, in fact, was plateia, from which the German term Platz, Spanish plaza and English “place” were all derived. Square à la city square is of modern origin.

The jump off

Welcome to the official blog of our translation network, Genial Translations. In it, we hope to offer some fresh perspectives on language and translation, and on our work in general. As both of us are new to the world of blogging, we’re not really sure how this will pan out. Nevertheless, we do hope to produce some rewarding entries that prove to be worth reading. Your questions and comments are appreciated!