A Word from the Wise


A Word from the Wise


In this talk I will try to express some thoughts about language and translation problems – specifically German into English – on three different levels: 1) purely practical; 2) language as it impacts on communication across cultural divides and our perceptions of other cultures and nationalities; and 3) how our languages may reflect some fundamental differences in subject-object relations, i.e. how we see ourselves (subject) in relation to the world around us (object).

The dominant model of linguistic communication today is probably that of a conduit, whereby language is seen as a medium used intentionally to communicate a message from a speaker to a listener. However I believe this model misleads, by treating language as a single phenomenon, as “one sort of a thing”.

Instead I have become convinced that there is a fundamental duality in human language, reflecting the dichotomy between change and stasis. If you watch people talking on the bus or train, or in any not entirely structured communication situation, on the listener’s face you will typically see an alternation of serious expressions and smiles or nods. A serious look generally accompanies the absorption of new, unfamiliar information, and the ensuing smile or nod tends to reflect some kind of consensus, acceptance of the new information, so that it is now familiar, shared between the parties.

These two phases might be called the communication “challenge” (for the potentially threatening incursion of new information content) and “reconciliation” (denoting acceptance of that new input).

They can be viewed on all sorts of scales – let’s start with the biggest, in the context of the evolution of human language: as animals we presumably made noises that were instantly intelligible to other members of our species, but severely limited in the scope of the information conveyed. Then the development of human language out of those animal noises would have created an outward movement from shared content, immediately intelligible and self-evident to members of the linguistic community (a “we” domain) to communications between individuals (the “I to you about it” domain).The birth of human language would then have been an explosion out from restricted communication on general, shared concerns, instantly understood by all members of the species, to the ability to communicate a wide variety of specific information on an individual basis, developed differently by all the sub-groups of our species.

But that huge expansion in our communicative capacities would have come at a cost, in the form of an alienation, estrangement, arbitrariness or lack of certainty in comparison with the certainty and spontaneity created by self-evident identification with the species to which we belong.

And on a much smaller scale, this duality can also be identified quite precisely at word and sentence level, simply by watching where the phonetic stress falls. Not surprisingly, it is the challenging content that is stressed, while unstressed material tends to be conciliatory.

The crucial point for us as translators is that challenging, innovative content tends to be important to translate, since it carries the essential content of the message. It is also easy to translate, even across cultural boundaries, because each element is typically opposed to something else.

Let me show you what I mean: if I say “It was nice weather, so I decided to walk up here tonight”, the sentence stress would probably fall on “nice” and “walk”. And even though my active German is not very good, the phrases schönes Wetter and zu Fuss spring to mind as the nucleus of a sensible translation into German.

But what about the other words? None of them hold very significant content, and instead all of them reflect consensus in some shape or form.

“It was” ahead of “nice weather” are words thrust on us by the mere fact that we speak English, and therefore, by implication, denote our shared membership of that linguistic community.

“So” simply links the two clauses, and adds very little information. However by choosing “so” rather than “therefore” I am establishing a friendly tone, whereby the linguistic community is perhaps the more intimate one of “you lot and me”.

“I decided to” is idiomatic padding, and best left untranslated.

“Up here” is again obvious content on the one hand – because we all know we are here – but it also defines a linguistic community of English-speaking Wellingtonians, through our shared knowledge of the university on the hill.

And “this evening” is again obvious, superfluous content given the current time of day, but such phrases have become a common way to soften what we are saying (as in “Would you like anything else with that today?”).

Now if we translate the sentence into German, some of those linguistic communities are not easily replicable.

“We English speakers” can easily become “We German speakers”, but there is less likely to be a community of “We German-speaking Wellingtonians”, for example. In any event the sentence will be much better translated as Es war schönes Wetter, so bin ich zu Fuss gekommen, than as Es war schönes Wetter, so habe ich mich entschlossen heute Abend hierauf zu Fuss zu kommen, or some such.

This is because entschlossen, hierauf, and heute Abend, being very awkward, would come across as challenging content rather than conciliatory clichés, and clog up the communication channel accordingly. If I was a native German speaker I might be able to find some equivalent clichés or pap, but still there would be little to be gained from doing so.

Accordingly it would seem that conciliatory language can often be difficult and unimportant to translate in any literal sense. This is because obvious content can – obviously – be expressed in many different ways, according to the speaker’s preference or the way a language typically goes about its business.

Let me take a couple of examples from my recent trip to Berlin to attend the FIT Congress. On the Berlin U-Bahn there was a sign reading Beförderung nur mit gültiger Fahrausweis. Since I was about to deliver a paper exploring these same categories of language, I mused idly on how I would translate this into English. I decided that the stressed, challenging content would have to be nur mit gültiger Fahrausweis, which could easily be translated as “only with a valid ticket”. Beförderung, on the other hand, is familiar and conciliatory, in the same way as “up here” and “tonight” in my previous example. The only reason I am reading the sign is that I am sitting in a train going somewhere – “man wird sowieso befördert” – so rather than floundering around with “transport” or some such, I used my imagination according to the “that’s what they say, what do we say?” rule (i.e. translating one linguistic consensus with another) and came up with “All passengers must hold a valid ticket”.

Some corpus-based text inspector could be surprised to see me translate the word Beförderung as “All passengers”, but in a sense I haven’t done that. I have translated the words nur mit gültiger Fahrausweis with an equivalent phrase, but perhaps rather “adapted” or “paraphrased” the rest of this sentence, which I have classified for myself as conciliatory, self-evident content.

Similarly the theme of the conference was “man vs. machine”, nicely translated into German as im Spannungsfeld zwischen Mensch und Maschine. Now this is fascinating, because Spannungsfeld is a word that regularly exercises the intellects of German-English translation hacks around the world. Yet here it has been generated quite spontaneously as the translation of “vs.”. Next time I come across it I will hopefully remind myself that as a cliché, Spannungsfeld is unlikely to carry any serious semantic weight, and should therefore be plugged into the translation with a phrase that will not attract too much attention, so as not to frighten the horses, so to speak.

So what are the implied consensus communities in these two cases? In the first case (Beförderung): possibly (1) German speakers; (2) people sitting in this train; (3) clients of a public service provider, therefore to be addressed impersonally (at least in German – more on that later), and in the second (Spannungsfeld): (1) German speakers; and (2) people who read and can be expected to understand a somewhat formally expressed document.

This of course barely scratches the surface of the consensus concept. As we speak or write we create a constantly changing and infinitely variable series of consensuses, probably all at the same time. But my interest for the moment is in the concept of a consensus as such.

Another type of conciliatory, familiar content that gives the appearance of conveying information but really just defines a consensus is the expansion and augmentation of simple terms on the basis of stylistic conventions or knowledge that the audience is supposed to share. Thus “The balding, softly-spoken 62-year-old Pukerua Bay resident admitted the charge of theorising without data” simply “means” that “the defendant” admitted the charge, but this information plugs into the expectations of a certain community of readers as to how a court report is, or used to be, written. Similarly, German corporate press releases, at a point roughly 2/3 of the way through, typically refer to the company in question as “the Mannheim-based SME founded in 1896 by out-ofwork baker Hans Schmidt”. Both these forms of cliché would tend to become challenge-type content if translated into another language, so the information either has to be omitted or, in the latter case, put earlier in the text where it can function as innovative content.

Another nice example in German is the phrase Der Metropole an der Isar which I am told is widely used by Munich residents to refer to their city, just as the Italians often refer to St Francis of Assisi as il poverello di Assisi. These are both clearly examples of conciliatory content, denoting “the Munich that we all love so well”, and “the saint we all love so much”, establishing a consensus of “we Müncheners” and “we Italians” respectively. Since those consensuses cannot easily exist in English, the word-for-word equivalents in English would be distinctly challenging, and patently ridiculous. So we can translate either by reduction and simplification: “Munich” and “St Francis”, or by making the familiarity and affection explicit: “our wonderful city” and “our beloved St Francis”.

A third category of conciliatory material comprises German adverbs such as konsequent, entsprechend and gezielt, usually glossed as “consistently”, “correspondingly” and “in a targeted manner”. Now if these were challenging, innovative expressions they would express the opposite of “inconsistently”, “non-correspondingly” and “in a non-targeted manner”.

Yet in fact they are merely clichés, gentle, homoeopathic semantic remedies with no known side-effects or indeed effects, other than conveying a sense that “we are educated German speakers, reading a non-fiction text with some stylistic pretentions, or that is trying to convince us of something”. In this case the best translation strategy is omission.

The argument so far has identified two modes of language, and noted three strategies for translating conciliatory content: 1) using your imagination; 2) reduction or explanation; and 3) omission (none of which are widely approved of in my profession).

This might be dismissed as just translation common sense – but now I would like to address some specific differences between German and English in how these two forms of content are expressed.

The point of departure here is the difference in the relations between grammatical persons involved in challenge and consensus mode respectively. Unless otherwise indicated, challenging content is implicitly communicated by an “I” to a “you” about an “it” (that is generally other than “I” and “you”). In other words, we have a clearly defined triangle of three semantic persons.

The acceptance and absorption of that content then has the effect of converting that triangle into a circle of “us”, eliminating the distinctions that were inherent in the challenging content.

I believe that in German texts the space between the poles of challenge and consensus, and within the challenge triangle, can be filled with the presence of the pronoun man, whether expressed or implied. The word man can refer to any or all of 1st, 2nd and 3rd persons, and hence this implicit man can do the same: in Heben Sie die Hände it adopts 2nd person to mean “your” (i.e. die Hände = mans Hände = Ihre Hände), while in Er hat die Hände in die Taschen gesteckt it moves into the 3rd person slot.

“Raise the hands” in English would be talking about the hands of a clock or something. And contrary to what we read in lesson 3 of a grammar book, it’s not just about the use of possessives with body parts. Think of the map you typically see outside botanical gardens or some such in Germany, with the word Standort. The English dictionary equivalent “location” would be innovative (as the only word in the sentence), and would imply something like “I tell you that something/someone is or was located somewhere”, i.e. it’s not about you, and it’s not about here.

Yet this is precisely what the actual meaning is about – “you are here”, i.e. “I tell you that you are here”. So this noun in German lacks the 3rd person content and otherness that would be implied by the equivalent in English.

Similarly, last year NZTC had to translate a set of facilitator’s instructions accompanying a PowerPoint presentation, telling the trainer what to do when. A previous translation had had a negative response, so I had a look at it. And I found, for example, that the phrase Vorstellung eigener Person had been translated as “personal introduction”. Again, the implied narrative of these English words is “I tell you that someone did, does or will introduce themselves”. Yet the sense was “I say that you should introduce yourself at this point”. So “Introduce yourself” would be much clearer. I resolved to do the whole translation accordingly. And indeed, this seemed to evoke a better response from the client.

Once again, there is no mystery here. We are often exhorted to translate nouns in German with verbs in English, for example. But my model of an inherent alienation in English that has to be disarmed to bring the message closer to the communication participants provides a useful way to conceptualise this translation problem, if problem it be.

A similar rift between the persons can be observed involved in another miniature linguistic drama. I was walking past the Lido coffee bar in Wellington one night, and read a sign “The Lido is now closed”. I felt extremely disappointed – presumably the receivers or the City Council had stepped in for some reason and closed down what had been one of my favourite establishments.

My analysis of my reaction goes something like this: I instinctively construed the message as an “I to you about it” communication, and assumed a third person agent for the café’s closure.

Yet it was open again the following night. On reflection I realised that the sign had doubtless been written by one of the young Germans working there. And the real sense was more like: “they have asked me to write up this sign to say that we’re closed right now”. From the German perspective, the message is less definitely the property of the writer, and the subject-matter can be commensurately closer to the “I” (and also more congenial to me as the recipient of the message).

So English imposes a very distinct separation of persons, whereas in the German substratum – again under the influence of man, I would suggest – the persons come much closer to merging – the “I” of the signwriter identifies with the “it” of the Lido, and I as the reader (the second person in the communication transaction) also feel informed as part of the establishment’s family.

The correct English could have been just “closed”. The mere fact of omitting all the other information would have created just the sort of familiarity that was needed (just as a nickname creates a sense of intimacy). (Otherwise the sign could have read “sorry, we’re closed right now”, making the identification explicit.)

So in German no disarming is necessary, since the possibility of a closer identification between the communication parties is already implied in the text, through the structures of the German language.

The problem is that as well as preventing effective communication across linguistic and cultural boundaries, these differences often become the stuff of stereotypes and prejudices, since as well as sending misleading messages about the content, they also convey the wrong impression of the speaker. Indeed, since one of the consensus communities very often created by language in use is “those of us who talk like this”, which easily morphs into “those of us of this nationality”, we are clearly on a very slippery slope.

Last year, my excellent colleague found a website – in English – produced by a major German company for employees seconded from other countries to work and live in Germany. It was headed “The Germans – and Why They Are the Way They Are” (capitals sic).

This immediately evokes the worst type of Basil Fawlty pro-British anti-German prejudice. This is because as English-speakers we construct the wrong “I”, one distant from the subject matter (the Germans), who is therefore not German. We then identify with that non-German “I” and collude in mocking the hapless Germans.

So: the third person is stated (the Germans), the first person is then definitely other than “the Germans”; and the second person (the English-speaking reader) immediately jumps on the bandwagon of prejudice, willy-nilly adding his/her thoughts to the existing canon of expressions of this sentiment in English.

The message of the original German – which was of course Die Deutschen – und warum sie sind so wie sie sind was more like “here’s what makes us Germans tick” – i.e., just as in the Lido case, the writer (“I”) is a member of the community of individuals being talked about, and is welcoming the reader to become associated with that community.

In other words, in German texts what appears to be third person content is disarmed, brought closer by its implicitly referring to 1st, 2nd or 3rd person plural entities, as the context requires, but in English the disarming has to be done explicitly in order to stop texts sounding cold and impersonal.

Now as English speakers we could respond to this situation as follows:

“Look how cold and impersonal the Germans are in the way talk about things”. Similarly, when we hear a Finn line up at the ticket office and just ask for a “single to Turku”, with nary a “please” or “thank you”, we might say x“ my word, aren’t the Finns rude”.

But on the basis of the challenge/reconciliation mechanism, these impressions can be shown to be necessarily falsified. Because of the sharp disjunct between challenge and consensus in English, straight talk is more challenging than it would otherwise be, and has to be disarmed more explicitly than would otherwise be the case. So the problem is that in English, more superficial politeness, use of conditionals, etc. is required to eliminate the appearance of brusqueness and rudeness.

For example, at one time NZSTI appointed a sub-committee of two – a Frenchwoman and a German woman – to draw up some guidelines for members of our profession.

I well remember my instinctive response – shared with many of my colleagues – when the text they came up with began with the words “All translators must follow these guidelines”. “Bloody Continentals telling us what to do” was more or less the thought that went through my head, I am ashamed to admit – and I was not alone. Again, note how national stereotypes come into play so readily in these situations.

Yet they – and I – were simply making a linguistic error. We English speakers identified the two ladies in question as the collective “I” originating the utterance, and took offence accordingly. Yet all they “meant” was “these guidelines apply to all translators” – which would have been fine. So the narrative in English was “I say that you must”, whereas the intended viewpoint was more like man sagt, dass wir sollen….

Similarly, English “should” is generally translated as soll rather than sollte in German, doit rather than devrait in French, since the latter would sound much too watered down in those linguistic contexts.

So the conclusion is that because English is rude, we have to talk polite, but since Finnish, say, is polite, the Finns can afford to talk rude; since English is impersonal, we have to talk personal, and since German is personal, Germans can afford to talk impersonal.

So at this stage we have reached the conclusion that we’re all the same deep down; understanding is marred only by linguistic habits, which can be compensated for and cancelled out in translation.

Yet some translation problems seem to be more intractable, and suggest more fundamental differences in world view between cultures.

For example, in modern English there appears to be a real problem of reference, whereby in some cases we find it difficult or impossible to be general and specific at the same time, as other languages can do.

Take the title of Les Misérables, for example, which slips easily into German as Die Elenden. Yet in English any kind of word for word translation is the very devil to concoct. For a start off we would have to choose between “poor” and “miserable” (which is another story). “The miserables” and “The miserable” are both arrant nonsense, and “The poor” would mean all of the poor, which is not the point.

In English we seem to have a sort of semantic Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, whereby if we concentrate on saying what something is like, we lose the ability to identify it, and vice versa. Similarly in Nietzsche’s “Untimely meditation” on history, at one point he compares our ability to perceive time and remember the past to the “here and now” existence of the animal world, as follows:

Der Mensch fragt wohl einmal das Tier: warum redest du mir nicht von deinem Glücke und siehst mich nur an? Das Tier will auch antworten und sagen: das kommt daher, dass ich immer gleich vergesse, was ich sagen wollte – da vergass es aber auch schon diese Antwort and schwieg: so dass der Mensch sich darob verwundete.

So what is an English translator supposed to do with Der Mensch fragt wohl einmal das Tier – “the man (human) might ask the animal”???. Which man or human? What animal are we talking about?

A good approach in such cases is to particularise and personalise, e.g. “Say I walked up to a cow and asked it…”. But why is this the case? Well, in my view the German successfully combines elements of both challenge (new knowledge) and consensus (what we already know). This notional conversation is not obvious, self-evident or already known. Yet der Mensch refers, not to a specific individual, but rather to an emblem of humanity as a whole (which is inherently known to all of us). Similarly, das Tier is not this or that animal in a particular herd in a particular field, but an emblem of the animal kingdom (which again is inherently known to us).

So der Mensch and das Tier contrive to be both general and specific in German. But on hearing the English phrase “the human” and “the animal” English native speakers would try, but in vain, to assign a specific, concrete reference, based on the question “which one?”. In addition, “the human” would tend to exclude the speaker, which is also rather ridiculous.

Thus the German phrases contrive to be both general and specific, but the direct English equivalents find it difficult to be either.

But by translating der Mensch with the first person “I”, and das Tier as an indefinite but particularised entity (“cow”), we form a meaningful statement towards the challenge end of the spectrum, combined with consensus because “I” as the speaker is self-evident. And these specific entities are then able to stand as representatives of the more generic categories of human beings and animals.

Similarly, when Walter Benjamin speaks of the encounter between der Mensch and das Apparatur, this is better conveyed in English in terms of an “actor” playing to the “camera lens”, rather than “man” confronting “technical equipment”, as one published translation has it.

Hence synecdoche (pars pro toto) is a very useful technique for producing idiomatic translations into English from a range of European languages, and I believe my view of the clearer split between challenge and conciliation in English than elsewhere explains why this might be the case.

So it seems to me that in German, a generic expression (consensus/familiar) can distil down into a specific concept (challenge), whereas the word for word English equivalent precludes specific reference. English instead has to start with a specific form (challenge mode) which can then be made to refer back into the shared, generic, familiar domain (consensus mode).

I believe this radical shift in what nouns in particular refer to in English probably means that we English speakers do in fact look at the world differently, that our view of the world is shifting inexorably from essence (the thing in term of its nature) towards existence (the thing in terms of its identity). Rather than letting us be part of the world we live in, our language may be forcing us to adopt a clearer division between subject and object.

This could even have implications at the foreign policy level. I fear that the radical “I” vs. a concrete “other” world can manifest itself in an “us versus the rest” mode of seeing the world, where “I” am immutably “I”, and everything else remains stubbornly “other”. The only viable path to consensus is then for a collapse of that dichotomy whereby everything else becomes like us. The “end of human history” argument advanced by the American historian Fukuyama is just one example of this.

In contrast, other languages seem to admit more readily of a more fluid, mutable “I” as part of a less alien world, perhaps viewed in more conceptual and less concrete terms.

So what does this mean for translators, and specifically those of us who work into English?

I believe that our task, too, addresses the challenge/consensus dichotomy. A work of literature, product manual or financial report of foreign origin clearly represents a challenge to the reader, and by using some of the tricks I have described here, we may be able to create a consensus.

That consensus refers firstly

– to the reader becoming at one with the content,


– to reconciling the reader as a member of his/her national and linguistic community with the national and linguistic community that originated the text; and

thirdly (possibly)

– to showing the reader, the wider community and even policymakers, that the “other” is not quite as alien as they may think. We may even prompt a suspicion that our readers may not be as self-sufficiently and immovably “I” as they were before.

More generally – and this is really my point – by looking at language in the right way it might be possible for cultural conflicts to be reinterpreted and redefined as linguistic issues, which, while stubborn, might be easier to address than cross-cultural conundrums.

Here’s hoping!