Tag Archives: translation

Are You Experienced?

I’ve been puzzling over two words that both can be translated as “experience” – das Erlebnis and die Erfahrung. I learned the first of these early on as I wanted to be able to describe my “experiences” with living in Germany and this word seemed to fit. Recently, I have been doing some online exercises about the German educational system and one of the key words that came up was die Erfahrung. As in English, this can be a section on one’s CV/resume (der Lebenslauf – worth a post in itself!) where you describe the different jobs, paid and unpaid, that you have done. Two German friends seemed surprised that I would find these two words confusing, they argued that die Erfahrung is associated with learning something new. In support of this they cited the proverb durch Erfahrung wird man kluge – “one learns by experience” or perhaps “through experience one becomes wise.”

My current hypothesis, based on this explanation, is that while you may set up the conditions that produce ein Erlebnis – going on a vacation or to a new restaurant or for a walk in the park – the “experience” just happens to you, you are somewhat passive. For it to be eine Erfahrung, you must put in some sort of effort, you don’t simply collect these “experiences,” you build them.

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Sharp sheep

It is lovely when wordplay works in multiple languages:

Warum laufen Nasen, während Füße riechen?
“Why do noses run while feet smell?”

Archetyp: Noah
“Archetype: Noah”

And you feel a bit of a loss when it doesn’t:

Man braucht scharfe Scheren zum Schafe scheren.
“One needs sharp shears when one shears sheep.”

“Sheep” and “sharp” are not a million miles apart in phonological terms, but they not nearly as close as Schafe and scharfe. In addition, while I’ve translated the German so that the noun and verb are both “shears,” this renders it a bit awkward and not really the sort of awkward that renders it funnier. So perhaps it would be closer to the feel of the original to say: “To spear sharks you need sharp spears?!”

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Das Für und Wider Immer Abwägen

Zum neuen Jahr

“Wird’s besser? Wird’s schlimmer?”
fragt man alljährlich.
Seien wir ehrlich:
Leben ist immer

-Erich Kästner

At the turning of the year

Will things get better? Will things get worse?
we wonder every year.
Let’s face it:
life is forever

Ich hoffe, dass Gedichte übersetzend sich nicht Leben gefährden. Jedenfalls, auf Englisch sagen wir what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger und auf Deutsch “Was dich nicht umbringt macht dich nur stärker.”

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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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Friend or enemy?

One real advantage in learning German rather than Vietnamese, for example, is that the two languages share common roots and have many words in common.  This advantage can also be problematic. You can develop a sense that you know more than you do each time that you ask how to say something in German and are given either the English word or a cognate – Question/Frage: Wie sagt man “balcony” auf deutsch? Answer/AntwortBalkon. You can also be lulled into a false sense of security, a feeling that if a German word looks like English, you can treat it as the same word…which brings us to false friends – die Übersetzungsfalle or der Fauxami.

Just for fun, I broke down the first translation of “false friend.” With so many compound words in German, one can often come up with a reasonable stab at a word’s meaning from this sort of exercise and it certainly helps widen your understanding of the smaller words that make up the compound.

über – across
setzen – to put, to place, to set
Übersetzung – translation
Falle – trap
So, roughly, we have a trap in putting the meaning in one language across into a second language, or a translation trap.

The second translation is a loan word or Fremdwortder Fauxami is a direct import of the French faux ami.

Interestingly, der Feind, the translation of the word “enemy” is nearly a true friend or cognate as one’s enemy could certainly be thought of as a “fiend” especially if you engage in Freund-Feind-Denken or the feeling that “if you aren’t with us, you’re against us!” 

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