Excuse me, can you translate?

I had a visit to the Zollamt today as a package of my own things had been mislabeled as merchandise by the friend who so kindly sent it and I needed to explain why the “merchandise” arrived with no receipt or pay duty if that explanation was not satisfactory.  I took along a native speaker because interacting with public servants often requires the use of das Papierdeutsch, a term used seriously in dictionaries to represent the language of government and bureaucracy (hence the variants das Amtsdeutsch – “the German of a government bureau or agency,” das Beamtendeutsch – “the German of an employee of a government bureau or agency” and das Kanzleideutsch – “chancery or office German”) and used more lightheartedly (scherzhaft – “facetiously, playfully, humorously” to take another dictionary term) to mean “gobbledygook.”

To get a feel for Papierdeutsch, imagine taking a fairly abstract concept and expressing it with a cumbersome compound noun rather than a simpler combination of noun and verb: die Nichtbefolgung – “noncompliance” rather than nicht befolgt “not followed.” And to make sure that you further obscure your point, try to use a passive sentence construction (z.B. Es wird darauf hingewiesen, dass… “It should be noted that”  Wir weisen darauf hin, dass… “Please note that”) and substitute as many simple prepositions as you can with more complicated ones (z.B.  betreffs – “regarding” – instead of wegen – “about”)! Thanks to http://www.werbewolf.ch/News-Inhalte/Sammel%20Duden/dujuni.html for these wonderful examples.

I came away happy because with my German speaking friend’s help, the explanation of my US friend’s mistake was accepted, and while I can’t say I feel much more confident navigating Papierdeutsch, it was a great example of how language learning helps us recognize when we need to be humble and ask for help. I was also put in mind of the “Jive” scene in the film Airplane where a little translation is required and wondered if perhaps Monty Python had done any sketches poking fun at Papierenglisch?!

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