Ok, Basti, can you say “release form”?

A couple of days ago I received a frantic little collection of emails in my inbox from an international toy company I occasionally work for.  The words ‘translation’ and ‘German’ and ‘next week’ were bandied around and before I knew it I was signing up to translate a wad of corporate and legal documents into German in just over a week and a half. What was I thinking? I ask myself that same question.

Except not really, because since then I have been devouring these translations; after months and months of my current job, where the greatest challenge is to see how many different ways you can make kids look at the same six flashcards every single week without breaking into a violent rampage, to finally do work which requires thought and consideration and a bit of a mental challenge is like finally being given a big juicy steak to chew on after months of eating nothing but mashed potato. Translation, although not specifically my forte, is one of the most interesting things you can do as a linguist because there are so many different facets of the stone you have to polish before you can send it off to be set. All at once you have to think about what the original language is actually saying, how it is trying to say it, what it is hoping the reader will get out of it, how you will knead all of this into the other language and how you will then make sure that the end product seems like none of this process ever happened in the first place; the ideal translation would be a text that doesn’t seem like it was ever in another language at all. It is very difficult, and it is even more difficult to do well

What makes it so endlessly interesting, however, is that you are forced to examine your own language and the target language with an electron microscope, and like fixing a microscope upon the end of your own nose you find that what looked like normal skin from a distance is actually a disgusting oozing landscape of gaping pores and oily craters. 

Firstly, you find out that English is a heck of a smarmy language. We use buzz-words and jargon like other languages use definite articles, and if you are foolish enough to try to translate them you will be disappointed to seconds later discover that Google thinks better of all that; most of the jargon and buzz-words are simply lifted over into the German in the clunkiest way possible, leaving you with terrible phrases like “einloggen” or “wie haben Sie das Customer Service gefunden?” There seem to be no rules as to which of these terms you should simply lazily allow to dribble straight from the English into your translation and which you should actually translate into German, however; there is in fact a complex spectrum of Germification which ranges from pure transplantation (“das Feedback”, “das Online-Shop”) to pure translation (“das Nutzerkonto”, “die Verbraucherbefragung”) and a good deal of cringy inbetweeny compromises (like the famous American president’s “die Inauguraladresse”). I spent good hours musing over how to translate the phrase ‘online experience’ because where English company-speak bandies the word ‘experience’ around as a comfy little linguistic cushion to smother over any areas where they don’t quite know what they themselves are trying to say – “How was your dining experience? Enjoy your sitting experience on that sofa. Please rate your holiday experience!” – German only has two ideas of experience, one of which is the kind of world-weary ‘experience’ we are talking about when someone has worked as a teacher for fifty-seven years and the other is a close-to-epiphany type moment which genuinely moves you somehow. There is no such thing as an ‘online experience’ because nothing that moving or self-moulding has ever happened to anyone simply bumming around on the internet. Which is why if you try to translate it any real German will simply tilt their head like a curious dog.

If that wasn’t enough, this is legal German that I am supposed to be writing. The idea of ‘Vertragsdeutsch’ scares native Germans so much that the sheer mention of the word makes them do that ‘oo-err’ face and I have to admit that if I found it in the least intelligible then I may not have so gaily signed my life away at the start of this year. I still resent being contractually forbidden from practising Scientology.

Translating legal documents is genuinely scary because in this case, should something get lost in translation there is always the vague worry that that one little thing will allow an innocent orphan to be sued or contractually bind someone into carving their own kidneys into Babushka dolls. I have nightmares of those scenes in TV shows where the lawyer finds the one tiny loophole in the contract and uses it to bring down X or Y party; the fact that one of these loopholes could arise simply out of me falsely translating the word for ‘liability’ is enough to make me need to breathe in and out of a paper bag. Legal German suffers from Thomas Mann syndrome in that the sentences are long, wordy and so dense that by the time you get to the end you need to read the beginning again to figure out what is going on. My flatmates advised me to chop the English sentences up to make intelligible German sentences, and while this works nicely we then have the issue of style; a contract almost needs to be wordy and convoluted in order to be ‘real’ and ‘serious’, just like a shampoo advert needs to be full of puffy nothing-words like ‘Maximising volumerific pro-diamantine-capsules’ in order to be sufficiently persuasive. I am worried that my finished contracts read like a legal version of the Mr Men books.

There is, however, one shining beacon that has gleamed out from my browser the whole time I have been working, and that is Linguee. Linguee.de is a website which is a standard one-language-to-another dictionary with one difference, that being that it searches for your term all over the internet where there is an equivalent part of that website in the target language. For example, you might search for ‘technical fault’ and be given the identical but translated English and German versions of Firefox’s FAQ to compare, as opposed to some stranger’s overconfident entry to one of the many iffy online dictionaries. This search function gives you that one thing any other search lacks: context. You can see how your term is being used and when, and crucially also for what audience. You can tell when one term is appropriate for a legal document and when another only suits slack-jawed advert-targeted customers. With this and my wonderfully helpful, wonderfully German flatmates I am getting there. Slowly but surely. Langsam aber sicherlich.

Rose T