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.