Munich in English - selected by independent Locals for Cosmopolitans, Newcomers and Residents - since 1989

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June 2001

Word for Word

The Art of Telling It Like It Is

What do telephones, trucks and heat shrinkable tubing appliances have in common? Not a lot, you might quip. Yet, since arriving in Germany three years ago, these are what I’ve been earning my living from. Not that I’m an electrician, nor do I pretend to be either a big rig driver or an authority on artificial membranes. No, I’m simply a translator.
“Simply” is a grand understatement. Considering the complexity of living language, the task of translating a text so that it tells the same story from one language to the next is far from straightforward. And that’s only the written word. There’s also interpreting—the simultaneous translation of dialogue. Twenty minutes at a time is generally the longest any interpreter can operate under the pressure. It’s hardly surprising that, when it comes to taking early retirement, this stressful profession follows hot on the heels of air-traffic controlling.
Having toured Europe teaching English as a foreign language for more than a decade, I decided it was high time to settle down. I soon landed my first such job translating news items for the Web site of a well-known telecommunications company. Imagine my delight when one of the first assignments was a press release for saucy TV celebrity Verona Feldbusch! The idea was to have Grand Prix fans order a wake-up call from the glamour girl in time to catch live coverage of the early morning race. Pleased with my punchy, “hit-them-with-it” translation, I rushed it to the proofreader and waited, with great anticipation, for its release to the outside world. Fatefully, however, the text went astray and by the time it hit international press offices, the victorious Schumi was already winging his way back home!
Moving on to the world of thermal membranes, followed by the commercial vehicle arena, has meant technical texts now form the backbone of my daily workload. Recently, however, I received a press release entitled Hier werden Sie geholfen (We’re here to help you). Bemoaning the poor German (Hier wird Ihnen geholfen being the correct form), I returned the translated copy, adding a footnote to this effect. Back came the message, yes the press office was aware of the grammatical error. Apparently they had deliberately coined the widely used catch phrase of a well-known advertisement! Ignorance may be bliss, but perhaps there is a point to sitting through commercial breaks after all.
Another thing I’ve learned as a translator is to be aware of “false friends”! Anglicisms, for instance, often misused in German, can be quite misleading. Take Kick-Off Event for example. Football fans note this is not the start of the soccer season but a promotional campaign. A Controller is neither an airport employee nor a quality inspector, but a Cost Accounting Manager. Another conundrum for the translator is how to convey terms frequently used in Germany but still unfamiliar in less environment-conscious countries. Mülltrennung and Waldsterben, for instance, mean the sorting of rubbish and the dying of forests, but, be honest, when did you last hear those topics come up on CNN? Difficulties with terminology, however, are nothing compared to the translator’s nightmare of having to unravel multi -subclausal, hyper-convoluted sentences for which Beamtendeutsch—officialese—is so notorious. By contrast, German also has a knack of breeding words that take numerous lines to translate into English: Schadenfreude, zuteilungsreif and schuttfähig to name but a few favorites.
A while back I was sent out on an interpreting assignment to accompany a group of Texan missionaries evangelizing in former East Germany. As none of them spoke German, I was soon called upon to mediate on their behalf and to convert the owner of a hardware shop. Everything seemed to be going fine until all of a sudden the lights went out and there we were, huddled in the dark, being told to leave. The ironmonger had obviously decided we were from a sect and there was no way he was going to get involved. On this occasion I was working both ways, that is, also translating into German, something I have since learned to avoid. The problem wasn’t the German (nor the irate shopkeeper for that matter) but understanding Texan dialect.
Many are the anecdotes about interpreters briefed to read up on a particular issue, then go into the meeting only to find something totally different on the agenda. Some of the most entertaining stories come from colleagues faced with interpreting after-dinner speeches following a long day of meetings. The trick is neither to lose the meaning nor forfeit any intended pun. Take the adage Kleider machen Leute (clothes maketh the man). How do you convey this when, in some languages (e.g., French), the only equivalent—such as “the habit doesn’t make the monk”—means exactly the opposite? Just how does one render a pun that plays on the difference between Der hat Schwein gehabt! (he was lucky) and Der hat das Schwein gehabt! (he had the pig)? The key is knowing how to deliver the humor without embarrassing any of the guests.
While many translators operate on a freelance basis, the beauty of working in house is the feedback you receive from the team—and just think of all the bloopers that get passed around! If you are considering a stint in translating and interpreting, be prepared to sit long hours at the PC or cram all weekend on a subject that might not come up in the conference room. And remember—when it comes to interpreting, German puns are no laughing matter! <<<

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