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Presenting you the most interesting translation solutions


Why Like-Blog? Now, first of all, this blog is a blog that you should like (and read regularly) – at least, if you are interested in translation. Then, the topic discussed here is one in which the meaningful likeness between a text and its translation in the language pair English-German plays a key role. On this page, I will take a close look at some interesting translation solutions that I have come across in the course of my work as a translator and translation scholar.

A translation solution is only as good as the arguments that support it. This means that any translation criticism, whether positive or negative, needs to be justified. The quality of a translation solution shows only when we compare it to other possible translation solutions in a given translation situation. Therefore, a translation critic should not only say why a translation solution is bad, but also demonstrate what a better solution might look like. I will try to stick to these principles of translation criticism. So if you have any questions regarding my line of argument or if you disagree, please, let me know your opinion by phone at +49 4171 6086525 or by e-mail to bittner@businessenglish-hamburg.de. So much for the introduction. I hope you’ll enjoy reading this blog!

Off to Italy (April 2024)

This month, I am discussing the German translation of an English original that I can only guess because I don’t have it. Although, in theory, the translation can have the same meaning as the presumed original, I am pretty sure that the meaning of the German target text is not the same as what has been intended by the English source text.

The translation in question is part of an interview by Peter Unfried, chief reporter at taz, with the American writer Jonathan Franzen. The interview appeared online at taz.de on 19 December 2023. The two mainly talk about climate politics. The fact that the interview is conducted in English, although Franzen also speaks German, is made clear at one point by the note “Franzen switches to German”. We are interested in the following passage:

Wir haben eine neue Obsession in Deutschland: Frührente. Aber nicht um die Welt zu retten, sondern um endlich – das ist das treibende Gefühl des Mittelklassen-Individualismus – Zeit für uns selbst zu haben, um das eigene Leben durch noch mehr Ausstellungen, Theater, Bücher anzureichern ...

Oder endlich dieses Jahr in Italien zu verbringen.


What is critical, here, is the way Franzen completes the sentence: “Oder endlich dieses Jahr in Italien zu verbringen.” In the Original, Franzen might have said something like, “Or, finally, to spend this year in Italy.” Both versions – the German and the English – can have two completely different meanings, depending on the context. The first, specific meaning is: We have time for ourselves to finally spend some time in Italy this year. The second, non-specific meaning is: We have time for ourselves to finally spend a year in Italy, which is something we’ve always wanted to do.

The problem, here, lies in the possibility and impossibility of “this” and “dieses”, respectively, to be used with an unspecific meaning. This is possible in English, where “this” can designate “a particular but unspecified person or thing” (Collins online); by contrast, such an unspecific meaning does not exist for “dieses” in German. For “Oder endlich dieses Jahr in Italien zu verbringen” to assume the second meaning, the topic of such a one-year stay in Italy would have to have been addressed beforehand. The determiner “dieses” would, then, refer precisely to this one-year stay in Italy. Without such reference, the German translation has the first, specific meaning.

Since Italy is not mentioned anywhere else in the interview and since the context is not about what early retirees are up to specifically in this year (i.e. 2023), Franzen will probably have intended the unspecific meaning with his English comment. The question is, how could this be meaningfully translated into German? Well, German has the indefinite article for such cases: Oder endlich mal ein Jahr in Italien zu verbringen. Here, “endlich mal” implies a long-cherished desire for a longer stay in Italy. In English, this is already expressed by “finally”; the determiner “this” merely reinforces the intended meaning. After all, the original could have run, “Or, finally to spend a year in Italy.” Then nobody would have thought of translating the end of the sentence above the way it was translated.