Kauderwelsch* in Language Translation

Published 19th November 2010
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That sounded very noble and high-minded, I’m sure – but what does it actually mean? How do we look after the language which is our livelihood?

In Germany, some people think the language needs protection from foreign – especially English – influences. Perhaps not surprisingly, they tend to be the same people who are worried about immigrants ‘overrunning’ the country and ‘contaminating’ German culture. They award prizes to public figures who avoid ‘anglicisms’ by imaginatively substituting German neologisms, and booby prizes to the most prominent repeat offenders. As a particularly low point, they often cite an interview the German fashion designer Jil Sander gave to the prestigious Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 1996, in which she said things like: ‘Wer Ladyisches will, searcht nicht bei Jil Sander. Man muss Sinn haben für das effortless, das magic meines Stils.’

Personally, I believe that languages have always cross-fertilised each other and that there’s nothing wrong with a bit of mutual contamination. After all, some German words have made it into the English language, too, and are thought to be so expressive of some essential quality of ‘Germanness’ as to be untranslatable: Schadenfreude, Angst or even gemütlich, to name but a few.

Leaving aside the political question of linguistic imperialism, which Divya recently addressed, and the extent to which global English is already colonising thought and speech patterns – as a professional language nerd I’m not very keen on the trend towards peppering German sentences with English words in order to seem cool and cosmopolitan. German grammar is quite different from English grammar so English words never quite fit German syntax – for example, while the plural -s is very rare in German, -er is a very common plural form; the third-person singular verb ending is -t, not -s; and so on. And of course, in written German nouns are capitalised so there’s always the irksome question whether English nouns in a German sentences should be capitalised, too – not to mention the even more irksome question which article to use: der (masculine), die (feminine) or das (neutral).

There is a troubling trend in commercial language translation not to translate expressions which are deemed to be commonly understood. In some cases, this can’t be helped – translators can’t suddenly take it upon themselves to coin a new German word for a specific banking or computing term, as this would be counter-productive and not result in accurate translations. A subprime mortgage is a Subprime-Hypothek whether I like it or not. But there is no need whatsoever to translate retail park as Shopping-Center, first-person shooter as Ego-Shooter, or bum bag as Bodybag. What we can and should do is try to be more inventive when it comes to everyday colloquialisms: to create a German style which sounds just as up-to-date as its English equivalent – without resorting to gibberish such as ‘Die Firma promotet ultrahippe Lifestylebrands mit Sexappeal für ihre Community von Movern und Shakern.’

* Kauderwelsch is German for gobbledegook. Nothing to do with Welsh, by the way, or at least not with Wales. The word is supposed to have derived from a contemptuous description of the supposedly unintelligible Rhaeto-Romance spoken in parts of Switzerland.

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