No need to leave every stone in place

Person arranging stacks of flat rocks

Fifteen years ago, I joined two amazing freelance translators to give a presentation at the American Translators Association annual conference. One of the two, Celia Bohannon, is a top-notch German-to-English translator and editor, and an excellent writer. She and I also worked together for many years as graders for the ATA certification exam. So before I continue with the more pithy parts of this blog post, I would like to give a shoutout to Celia, as a way of acknowledging how much I have learned from her, and how much GLS has benefitted from her excellent work over the past two decades. Celia: it has always been a pleasure and an honor to work with you, and it is your wisdom that inspired this blog post. 😊

Our presentation at that conference 15 years ago was titled “Translating Terrible Teutonic Texts,” and in it we discussed strategies for translating abstruse, academic, intellectual, impersonal, almost intentionally convoluted German texts (i.e., terrible Teutonic texts, or TTTs for short) into clear, idiomatic English. Celia, who had years of experience translating such texts, addressed several of the strategies that she often employs. My favorite one, in her words, was “Don’t feel obliged to leave every stone in place.” Those of you who have ever translated a TTT will know exactly what I am talking about here. But these stones don’t just crop up in TTTs. Indeed, they show up in all types of German texts, from academic research papers to batch manufacturing records. And generally we can identify three main generators of these stones:

  1. the compound nouns that are so common in German
  2. the nominal style that is so typical for German
  3. the fact that German has three different genders (and five cases)

If DE>EN translators raise their awareness of these three troublemakers, they can greatly improve the style and flow of their German-to-English translations.

Let’s look at a few examples. First, a couple involving compound nouns:

Sicherheitsschuhe der Reinraumklasse C/ISO7 unterscheiden sich optisch in Schuhfarbe, oder durch an den Sicherheitsschuhen befestigte Pharmaverplombung.

In this sentence, we have two compound nouns (one of which appears twice) involving the word Schuh: Sicherheitsschuhe and Schuhfarbe. If we “leave every stone in place” when we translate these compound nouns into English, we end up with a fairly clunky sentence:

Safety shoes for cleanroom class C/ISO7 differ visually in terms of the shoe color, or by the pharmaceutical security seal affixed to the safety shoes.

We can improve this sentence by removing a couple of the stones (or should I say shoes?):

Safety shoes for cleanroom class C/ISO7 differ visually in terms of their color or the pharmaceutical security seal affixed to them.

Here’s another example:

Für den Transport ist der Granulierkessel mit vier Transportrollen versehen.

If we leave the stones in place here, we end up with something like this:

For transport, the granulation vessel is equipped with four transport casters.

Since transporting something is pretty much the main function of any caster, we definitely have some redundancy here. And since the German compound noun yields two words in English—an adjective and a noun—we can delete the redundant adjective (and possibly even the prepositional phrase) without losing any meaning:

The granulation vessel is equipped with four casters.

Now let’s look at examples of how the nominal style can make our English translations pretty rocky. In a “nominalized” sentence, abstract nouns perform most of the work; the main semantic elements are nouns or maybe even adjectives, and verbs are semantically “empty.” Sentences are usually passive. This nominal style of writing is common and acceptable in TTTs, but not so pretty in English.

Zur Fortsetzung der Abarbeitung wird die Unterschrift eines zweiten Mitarbeiters benötigt.

With every stone left in place, we have this:

For the continuation of the process the signature of a second employee is necessary.

Since English prefers a verbal style over a nominal one, we can replace three words—the [noun] of—with one verb:

To continue the process, a second employee must sign the document.

Here’s another example:

Die Stiftung konzentriert sich auf die Förderung der Demokratie und die Entwicklung der Sozialleistungen.

Leaving the stones, we have this:

The foundation is dedicated to the promotion of democracy and the development of social services.

But if we roll those boulders away, we have this:

The foundation is dedicated to promoting democracy and developing social services.

Note how in each case one word replaces three, reducing clunkiness and improving flow. Indeed, I have found that a good way to reduce nominalization in your translations is to search the text for the words “of the”—or, if time permits, even just the word “of.” This will usually alert you to spots where you could dig out a couple of stones and bring in active verbs.

Other stones that can get lodged in English translations are the various definite articles tied to the three genders and five cases in German. Here’s an example:

Während der Reinigung wird der pH-Wert und die Leitfähigkeit im Retentat und Filtrat gemessen.

In German, we can’t say “…der pH Wert und Leitfähigkeit” because Wert is masculine and Leitfähigkeit is feminine. For a grammatically correct sentence, we repeat the definite article that modifies each noun. If we do the same in English, we end up with this:

Measure the pH and the conductivity in the retentate and the filtrate during the cleaning.

However, since English nouns don’t have grammatical gender, there is no need to leave all these stones in place. Instead we can simply write:

Measure the pH and conductivity in the retentate and filtrate during cleaning.

If we as German-to-English translators consciously recognize these terrible Teutonic troublemakers and internalize and apply these strategies, we can greatly improve the quality and readability of our translations, no matter what the text type. Thanks to Celia and the tips she shared with us at that conference 15 years ago, the road I have traveled as a translator has been a lot less rocky. I hope that this blog post may help to make the road a bit smoother for some of you out there, too.

Maia Costa