Gobbledegook

symbolic picture for gobbledygook

Learners of German have quite a cross to bear. Not only are they studying a language with complicated grammar and tons of irregularities and exceptions, but they are also incessantly told so by pitying native speakers of that language. Now here’s something new. Even German has a silver lining! Read on, and I’ll let you in on a big secret.

The secret is: even Germans don’t understand German – because it’s not necessary to understand it. German is all about smoke screens and mirrors. It sounds disarmingly professional and convincing. However, most of the time, people are not entirely sure what they’re talking about.

The best example of this are compound nouns. As Paul Sullivan illustrates in his text How to piss off a German (‘Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz’), these words can get quite long in German.

And legal German is even worse. Let’s take a real-life example. When, during my interpreting work for patent law firms that I frequently do, I first came across the expression ‘immaterialgüterrechtlicher Zweckübertragungsgrundsatz’, I had, quite frankly, no idea what that means, even in my own language. So what did I do? I asked someone who is in the know.

When my more senior colleague Obi Wan explained it to me, I realised that, to translate German into English, you must first dissect and analyse it. In this respect, English is much more precise. In English, this expression reads something like ‘the principle of special-purpose transfer under intellectual property law.’ Suddenly, all references are clear. It’s magic!

By implication, this means, my poor, suffering learners of German, that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. You can translate complex English concepts into German by simply condensing them into the longest-possible compounds. Easy-peasy! ‘Our jam contains large amounts of freshly-picked fruit’ will single-handedly become ‘Wir bieten pflückfrische Vollfruchtmarmelade’ (a tribute to Loriot).

English, however, is often underrated and misunderstood. Especially Germans seem to judge the quality of a German-English translation by the exact number of words that match and think if a text is intellectually comprehensible it does not dignify the Fachlichkeit of the original.

Here lies the major difference between the two cultures: academic or scientific texts in German are expected to impress by their complexity while in English they are supposed to be accessible to as vast a readership as possible. Encryption vs decryption.

For those interested in the dynamics of technical texts in English, I recommend Prof. Dirk Siepmann’s book Wissenschaftliche Texte auf Englisch schreiben (2012, Stuttgart, Klett) for further reading.

Next week, we’ll get squeaky.

The Pommes Buddha says: Your water pipes will love zerstörungsfreie Rohrleckortung.

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