icon  icon icon

Mobile

Translation problems

My claim in these articles is that English is not such an easy language as its reputation has it. Although many would dispute this claim, particularly for beginning learners of English, I don't think it can be doubted that, after a certain threshold level, English can be very difficult indeed to get right. To prove my point, I would like to present some texts that have been translated from German into English. In each case I'm sure the translator was confident that he or she knew enough English to do a good job, but in fact things went wrong, sometimes horribly!

The first text is from a sign I saw in a campsite in Switzerland. The German version reads as follows:

Dies ist eine Geschirrwaschstelle. Achten Sie deshalb besonders auf Hygiene. Bitte waschen Sie Textilien in den Waschsalons, und besorgen Sie Ihre persönliche Toilette in den Körperwaschstellen. Wir danken für Ihr Verständnis.

It had been translated into English as follows:

This is a dish-washing installation. Please see that it is therefore kept in a hygienic state. Please wash your clothes in the laundrettes and make your toilet in the personal grooming locations. Thank you for understanding.

There is no problem at all with grammar in the translation; the difficulties result from faulty word choice. The common desire, in a public notice, to use a kind of more formal language has resulted in English that sounds ridiculously old-fashioned.

The first problem is with the translation of the typically long German compound Geschirrwaschstelle as dish-washing installation. The word installation gives the impression of a large building full of specialized equipment and machines. Instead of trying to directly translate the German word, the translator would have done better to write a sentence like This room is for washing dishes.

The translation of besorgen Sie Ihre persönliche Toilette in den Körperwaschstellen into make your toilet in the personal grooming locations has produced language that could have come from a 19th century novel by Jane Austen. The word toilet to mean the washing the body, brushing teeth, combing hair etc. fell into disuse a long time ago. And the expression personal grooming stations is an amusing euphemism for bathroom. The whole expression would be better translated as follows: use the bathrooms for personal hygiene.

The last sentence Thank your for understanding also contains a problem. It should be the fixed expression Thank you for your understanding.

............................

The next example comes from an advertisement that was posted on the Frankfurt International School noticeboard by a small company offering German lessons. Again, there are no problems with grammar as such; all the difficulties are with the choice of words or the use of words. Let's look at some extracts:

Communication using the language of your host country makes life easier and enjoyable. Doesn't matter if for shopping, entertainment, health or orientation or all of it together - the knowledge of German language will increase the quality of life incredibly.

There are several small problems here. In the first sentence, the writer uses the comparative form of easy (easier) but not of enjoyable. This is certainly no error but, to my ears at least, it reads better as: Communication using the language of your host country makes life easier and more enjoyable. The omission of the word it at the beginning of the second sentence is not appropriate for a written text of this kind. But the use of it later in the sentence is also wrong since it is referring to the four listed items - shopping etc. So the sentence should read It doesn't matter if shopping, entertainment, health or orientation or all of them together ... The next problem is with the missing definite article before German language. It should be the knowledge of the German language. The word incredibly at the end of the sentence is far too strong and informal for this context; it should be something like considerably or noticeably.

We assist you to fully merge in the German language.

The word merge is malapropism (i.e. the speaker has mixed up two similar-sounding terms). It should be We assist you to immerse yourself in the German language.

There is nothing easier to start or continue with German language classes.

The word than is missing after easier. It should read There is nothing easier than to start or continue with German language classes.

............................

The third example comes from the glossy brochure of an exclusive hotel near Frankfurt. It contains the following passage:

With Frankfurt and Wiesbaden within easy reach, the guest can relax here, away from the day's hectic activity, and enjoy the scenery and country-side so typical of Germany. We are sure you come back once you stayed in the … Hotel.

I find this passage rather puzzling. It has seems to have been professionally translated, since the first sentence is in excellent English, (with the small exception of the unnecessarily hyphenated word country-side). Yet the second sentence contains two mistakes of basic grammar in the choice of verb tense, typical of Germans beginning to learn English. It should be:

We are sure that you will come back once you have stayed in the .. hotel.

In fact, a more direct translation of the German probably produces a better result: We are sure that you will feel comfortable here and will want to come back again. (Sie werden sich hier wohl fühlen and gerne wiederkommen.)

............................

There are a number of lessons to be learnt from these examples. First, if you are translating a public document into English, it would be useful to ask a native speaker to check it through for you! Secondly, translation is a difficult art - particularly if you try to produce a word for word match literal version of the original. It is better to render meaning not exact words. Thirdly, translating into English is especially difficult. Not usually because of English grammar, but because of the problems in finding the appropriate English expression or using that expression in the correct way!

More on the problems of usage.

Another example of poor translation

More about the influence of English on German

Quiz questions

1. The following text comes from a hotel guide for a region in the Swiss mountains. Can you find two problems in the English translation?

Geeignet für ruhige Wanderferien. In 2 Stunden ab Parkplatz Stechelberg erreichbar. Einheimische Küche zu mässigen Preisen.
Suitable for quiet hiking holidays. Accessible within 2 hours from Stechelberg car park. Local kitchen for reasonable prices.

2. The next are further examples from the advertisement for German language classes:

Specific course are available for the businesspersons or technical professionals.
Experienced teachers - used to work with adults and/or children are available with us.
Training facilities are bright and comfortable, just renovated rooms.
Any question left?
Please contact us immediately. New classes started already.
Use a small piece of your spare time and enrol for German language classes now.

Answers

1. Local kitchen for reasonable prices. There are two typical translation problems in this example. Firstly, English has two words for the single German word Küche. One, kitchen, for the room, and the other, cuisine, as a synonym for food/cooking. The translator has chosen the wrong one here. Secondly, the German preposition zu has wrongly translated. The second sentence should read: Local cuisine at reasonable prices.

2. Specific courses are available for the businesspersons or technical professionals. The definite article the is wrong. It should be: Specific courses are available for businesspersons (business people) or technical professionals.

Experienced teachers - used to work with adults and/or children are available with us. After the expression used to, the gerund is needed: Experienced teachers - used to working with adults and/or children are available with us.

Training facilities are bright and comfortable, just renovated rooms. Just is ambiguous, and seems to read in this sentence as only, nothing more than. It should read: Training facilities are bright and comfortable rooms that have just been renovated.

Any question left? This should read: Any questions left?

Please contact us immediately. New classes started already. The tense of the verb in the second sentence is wrong. It should be: Please contact us immediately. New classes have started already.

Use a small piece of your spare time and enrol for German language classes now. The expression a small piece does not collocate with spare time. It should read: Use a little of your spare time.


Frankfurt International School: Art and artists. (Click to see at full size.)