3 things to bear in mind when translating between English and German (part 2)

1.      Double meanings:

 Sometimes words in the source language will have two possible translations in the target language. An example for this is the German word, ‘schwer’, which can be translated to both ‘heavy’ as well as ‘difficult’.

This issue is usually simple to resolve by paying attention to context:

‘Die Tasche ist schwer.’ → ‘The bag is heavy.‘

We know that the bag is a physical object that cannot directly be ‘difficult’ in any way, which highlights that the correct translation must be ‘heavy.’

‘Die Aufgabe ist schwer.’ → ‘The task is difficult.‘

The task is not a physical object and thus cannot be ‘heavy’, which means that the correct translation must be ‘difficult.’

In some instances, the context can be slightly ambiguous and not as straightforward as in our example considered above. Therefore, it is important that the translator evaluates the described circumstance with care, in order to avoid a faulty translation.



2.      Hyperonyms and hyponyms: 

 Often, source language and target language do not have a full synonym that is shared across both languages. The nearest semantic equivalent can be more specific in one of the languages than in the other.

An example for this are the German words ‘Ausgang’ and ‘Ausfahrt’, which both translate to the English ‘exit’.

The more general expression, ‘exit’, is a hyperonym. The narrower words, ‘Ausgang’ and ‘Ausfahrt’ are hyponyms.

In translation of these words, the translator will have to make choices depending on context:

‘They were looking for the exit of the parking garage.’ → ‘Sie suchten nach der Ausfahrt des Parkhauses.‘

Here, we would translate ‘Ausfahrt’ as the context implies that the exit is to be taken by car. To be certain, however, we would need to also consider previous context to ensure that they have not just parked and are walking to find the nearest (walking) exit – this is not specified in the sample sentence only.

Another example:

‘Where is the exit of the shopping centre?’ → ‘Wo ist der Ausgang des Einkaufszentrums?‘

Here it is clear that the translation is ‘Ausgang’, which implies that the exit is to be taken by foot. This translation would always be accurate unless the previous context specified the rare occasion of the shopping centre in question being some kind of drive-in mall.

When translating from hyponym to hyperonym, some information is always lost in translation. The translator will have to evaluate whether the lost information is crucial for readers to know: if it is, they may consider adding extra information. Otherwise, they must settle for the nearest synonym – the hyperonym.



3.      Allusive meanings:

 Allusive meanings are created when a wording alludes to an idiom or proverb and thus has connotative meanings as opposed to literal meanings. This can particularly be an issue if no similar idiom or proverb exists in the target language.

An example for allusive meaning is if a text were to reference that there are ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’, which alludes to the proverb of spoiling the broth. We disregard the literal meaning here and instead understand what it connotes, meaning that there is a lack of teamwork in the described situation, resulting in chaos and negative outcomes.

Luckily, in this example, a German alternative exists: ‘zu viele Köche verderben den Brei‘. Thus, the translator could use the same phrasing in the target language and maintain the effect of the allusive meaning.

One issue with allusive meaning is that the translator needs to spot it – and realize that a literal translation would be wrong here. Another issue is finding an equivalent in the target language through either a similar allusion or by compensating with inclusion of other details that can mirror the connotative meaning.

This requires lots of creativity from the translator – skills in transcreation.

Andreas Jacobi

Andreas Jacobi


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