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Home, sweet home

We've seen it all before

Fools rush in

Common pitfalls in freelancer applications

From great literature to great movie titles







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Home, sweet home (16 July 2021)

We have touched on the subject of pseudo-anglicisms (aka 'Denglisch') in our blogs before and the pandemic has created – or at least brought into common parlance – a new variation on this phenomenon. The phrase "Wir arbeiten im Homeoffice" / "Wir sind im Homeoffice" has become a ubiquitous refrain on websites and other customer-facing platforms across the German-speaking countries.

This translates literally as "We are working in the home office" / "We are in the home office". The German language has once again taken a specific English term and given it a deft semantic tweak in order to use it for its own purposes.

For an English speaker, a home office is a specific room in their house that has been set up as a working space. In many cases, such rooms have been created on an ad hoc basis out of necessity during the pandemic ("I have turned our dining room into a home office so we now have to eat on the sofa.")

To convey the same meaning as the German sentence, an English speaker would most likely say "We are working from home."

There are some related terms that have also come to greater prominence during the pandemic and whose meaning is sometimes a little blurred at the edges:

Home working: This is fairly self-explanatory and clear.

Mobile working: This implies working from a mobile device (e.g. a laptop or tablet) while travelling or on the move in some way. This existed before the pandemic and, if anything, would have been less widely practised during the last year or so, given the severe travel restrictions that have been in place. However, the term and, in particular, its German equivalent "mobiles Arbeiten" have found much greater currency during the pandemic. The following is taken from a customer text:

"Praktisch von heute auf morgen sind wir ins mobile Arbeiten übergegangen."

The context here was the imposition of the initial lockdown and the almost overnight switch from office-based to home-based working. What the author really meant, however, was 'remote working' or, more specifically, 'home working' rather than 'mobile working'.

Remote working: This describes an arrangement where employees do not travel to a central place of work but instead are connected, usually electronically, to that place of work from another location. Both mobile working and home working are in fact sub-categories of remote working.

There is certainly a tendency in German to use "mobiles Arbeiten" as the generic term to describe any 'remote working' scenario, which can of course make life difficult for the translator (Does the author really mean specifically 'mobile working' or 'remote working'?). This may have something to do with the fact that 'remote working' is much less easily transferable into German than 'mobile working'. We have seen the phrase "remote arbeiten" used in German, but it is awkward and does not lend itself very well to the usual declensions required by German grammar. The more established wholly Germanic (and semi-Greek) variants 'Fernarbeit' and 'Telearbeit' seem altogether less popular.

Flexible working: This can be used to describe various working arrangements, but most commonly - and in particular when it comes to discussions about post-pandemic working arrangements - a scenario in which employees work part of the week in the office and part of it at home. It can also refer to flexibility of working hours.

Returning to the original subject of this article, namely the translation of the new-German "Ich arbeite im Homeoffice", there is the added complication for any British reader that the phrase "I am working in the Home Office" could be interpreted as meaning that I have got a job as a civil servant in the Home Office, the UK government department with responsibility for immigration, security and law and order. An unlikely misunderstanding, admittedly, but it certainly highlights the dangers of literal translation.

We've seen it all before (28 June 2021)

So here we are again, England versus Germany in the knock-out stages of a major football tournament. Looking at England's relatively serene, versus Germany's rather stuttering, progress in the group stages of Euro 2020 (a year delayed, of course) anyone would think that England were the seasoned Turniermannschaft and thus favourites for the upcoming Wembley date - particularly seeing as we will have home advantage. But as Gary Lineker once said: "Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win." Yes, Die Mannschaft* versus the Three Lions is a fixture that strikes fear, and a heavy dose of resignation, into the heart of every football-loving Englishman.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given how frequently Germany have swatted England aside, the intensity of the rivalry is primarily an English construct. Die Mannschaft, for their part, consider their biggest football rivals to be the Netherlands. While it is not completely without edge, Germany ultimately regard a game against England as simply another sporting contest to be negotiated. Perhaps it tells us something about the English national psyche that our penalty shootout misses (the most famous coming in semi-finals against Germany, in 1990 and 1996), are almost as deeply ingrained in the collective memory as our one moment of true glory in 1966. But while the rivalry may not be as deeply felt in the Ruhr as it is in Ramsgate, Wembley itself enjoys a special place in German footballing heritage. The hallowed turf, the home of English football, provided the setting for one of Germany's most famous tournament successes, at Euro 96. It was a victory that, somewhat improbably, made the Three Lions anthem - an ode to hope and English failings - almost as popular in Germany as it is here. And a little less famously, in this country at least, the last ever game played at Wembley was also between Germany and England. Needless to say the Germans were victorious again on what should have been a celebratory occasion for the hosts.

Indeed the word Wembley has even found its way into German football vernacular. A Wembley-Tor is a shot that bounces down from the crossbar to the ground and back into the field of play, with an element of doubt as to whether the ball crossed the line. It dates back to the 1966 World Cup final (make that 55 years of hurt now ...) when Geoff Hurst's 'down-off-the-crossbar' shot was famously given as a goal - the decisive goal in the game. It is now generally accepted that the ball did not actually cross the line, so we can be thankful not only to the Russian linesman (when else has the nationality of a linesman been so richly documented!) but also for the fact that goal-line technology did not exist at the time. The karma was repaid somewhat when Frank Lampard's Wembley-Tor was not given in the England-Germany last sixteen tie at the 2010 World Cup. Lampard's 'ghost goal' was in fact so clearly over the line that it is credited with accelerating the introduction of said goal-line technology.

With so many of our customers obviously supporting Germany during this game, we are perhaps best off ending the blog with a simple request that may the best team on the day win! Come on England! Auf geht's Deutschland!

*We discovered during the tournament that Austria are known as Das Team, an obvious play on Die Mannschaft and one that certainly doesn't roll off the tongue as smoothly!

Fools rush in (1 April 2021)

As we pause for breath during what has been a hectic annual report season, a short window has opened in which to wish our readers a happy start to springtime proper. Given our morning instead of afternoon publication time and the date of the blog, you'd be forgiven for thinking an Aprilscherz is on the horizon. But sadly we'll have to disappoint. The LingServe team are not being replaced with robot translators (yet ...), Germany has not decided to adopt English as its official language (yet ...), and Jogi Löw's boys were not beaten at home by North Macedonia in the World Cup qualifiers last night (wait a moment ...).

Of course, Teutonic humour doesn't have the best reputation internationally. But as Deutschlandkenner, we know better. Germans love an April Fools' joke as much as anyone else. It's always a hard balancing act, however. And not every joke will land. Particularly when it has to work across borders. Indeed a German multinational is at the centre of what will probably be this year's biggest April Fools' controversy. The candidate for the April Fools' joker turned actual April Fool for 2021 is none other than Volkswagen. The auto giant rather jumped the gun by announcing that it was rebranding as Voltswagen a couple of days before April 1. Hubris? Itchy trigger finger? Who knows. Make of it what you will, but the marketing stunt at the very least seemed to divide opinion. Perhaps partly because, of course, it actually made a lot of sense on some levels. The company is indeed moving increasingly towards electric-powered transport. Or should we be calling it 'e-mobility'? (That's a translation discussion that could probably fill ten blogs!)

According to various news sources, reports of the purported name change caused VW's stock to surge, turning what was a pretty ham-fisted attempt at humour into something potentially a lot more serious. The joke was probably not intended to manipulate the company's share price and it seems unlikely that the regulators would see it that way. But corporate social media departments need to be extra careful in today's meme-obsessed age when a single tweet by Elon Musk and his ilk can send a valuation soaring or nosediving.

Have you spotted, or been taken in, by any good April Fool's jokes today? Let us know, especially if they're German! Running with the Voltswagen name gag, perhaps Daimler is going to announce that it's buying the Swedish chocolate brand Daim. Will Porsche finally settle the argument of how to pronounce its name by removing that cursed final "e"? Will BMW rebrand as Beemer? Audi as the US-friendly Howdy! OK, perhaps now, you see now why we didn't do our own joke... Happy April Fools' Day everyone and frohe Ostern from all of us here.

Common pitfalls in freelancer applications (22 January 2021)

Every once in a while, we receive an email from a freelance translator looking for work. We have no issue with this. There's no shame in the hustle, and we engage in marketing activities ourselves. However, we hope we do so with a little more panache and a lot more attention to detail than most of the freelancer enquiries we receive.

The first flaw in most of these emails is obvious. They tout services in languages that we ourselves do not offer. Our #1 tip for marketing to a translation agency: Check the company you're approaching actually handles your language! Not all of us are all-singing, all-dancing LSPs, and in our case we believe that actually constitutes our USP. Enquiries of this kind, should they get through our spam filters, go straight into the electronic trash bin.

The second common failing in freelancer emails is the poor writing. Of course, we understand that English may not be the native language of many of the translators targeting us. But if you're selling the written word, then your correspondence needs to be word-perfect. Almost all these emails are riddled with spelling and grammatical errors and unidiomatic English. #2 tip for any budding linguist looking to get their foot in the door with an agency: Have your emails checked, corrected and polished by a native speaker of the language you are writing in.

Of course, we are under no illusions that the bulk of these freelancer enquiries originate from anything other than a scattergun mass mailout approach. Which brings us on to our third bugbear: non-personalised emails. We don't mind this from Rapid Racking, who seem to really want our business - maybe they think we have a lot of dictionaries? But it seems wrong for someone who wants to forge a close working relationship with us. #3 tip: Tailor the email. Use our names, they're not hard to find, or at least the name of our company.

Recently, however, one email did pop into our inbox that was head and shoulders over anything we've ever received before. Nothing earth shattering, but it addressed us by name, was clear, well-written and idiomatic and did not overstay its welcome. It also had a professional graphic-based signature and a PDF CV attachment instead of a Word file. Needless to say we responded to this translator and agreed to keep their details on file.

Ultimately, whether a translation company wants to work with a translator will depend on the quality of their translation, not the quality of their application. But the initial approach needs to be compelling enough to take the translator through to the next stage, and must not contain the type of errors that will result in immediate elimination from the process.

From great literature to great movie titles (25 September 020)

One of this blog author's favourite German-language writers, and indeed favourite authors of all time, is Stefan Zweig. I recently rediscovered his novel 'Rausch der Verwandlung', which tells the rags-to-(temporary)-riches story of Christine Hoflehner, a female post-office clerk from a small town near Vienna during Europe's poverty-stricken interwar years.

But what's that got to do with translation, I hear you ask. Well, out of professional interest, I wondered whether the book had ever been translated into English and, if so, what the title was. It seems it has: 'The Post-Office Girl'. Now if you haven't read the book you probably won't appreciate how good a translation that is - I think it's perfect, by the way - you'll see only that it bears no resemblance to the German title. Let's take a look under the hood to examine why that choice might have been made. Firstly, the close translation 'Intoxication of Transformation' doesn't work due to the pairing of two syllable-heavy words that feature an ugly repetition of 'tion', plus the fact that the English word 'intoxication' has a much more formal register than the more commonly used German word Rausch. Secondly, shifting the focus of the title to the protagonist, the post-office girl, draws in the reader to discover what tale such a supposedly humble subject could have to tell. You might compare it with the modern and equally prosaic yet somehow intriguing 'The Girl on the Train'. But not everyone shares my positive assessment. Indeed, I found the following critique of the novel's English title from a non-German speaker particularly interesting:

"Finally I'm unsure about the title. The original is Rausch der Verwandlung. The last word I know from Kafka, but a rough Google Translate gives the whole as Noise of the Transformation. Edwin Frank prefers The Intoxication of Metamorphosis, which makes more sense. Both are more enigmatic and striking than The Post-Office Girl to be sure. Then again, the chosen title has a blank simplicity which appeals too, and an irony in finally reducing Christine to her social role however hard she wishes to escape it ... Sometimes publisher knows best then."1

So contentious and carefully chosen are the translated titles of works of literature that they are even prone to being changed by later publishers, perhaps to suit more modern times, or perhaps simply because someone has come up with something better. Provided the work is not already too well known by its original translation, this is not usually a problem. Indeed the title of one of Zweig's final works, 'Schachnovelle' - another great read, I would add - is now simply 'Chess' or sometimes 'Chess Story', having begun life in English as 'The Royal Game'.

But our blog title also promised you movie titles, didn't it! So without further ado, here is a random selection of some notable translations of German titles of English films (and vice versa), with a little LingServe commentary:

Cruel Intentions - Eiskalte Engel
Alliteration at its finest, and an improvement on the original perhaps?

Lola Rennt - Run Lola Run
The extra word to get the rhythm right in English makes all the difference here.

Bend it like Beckham (English title) - Kick it like Beckham (German title)
Yes, that's an actual German translation! If the words or phrasing used in the film title are considered sufficiently comprehensible in German, a common tactic is to simply leave untranslated or adapt slightly, as is the case here. Other examples of this approach include 'Miss Congeniality', which became 'Miss Undercover' in German, and 'Bring It On', which became 'Girls United'. Essentially the producers probably thought the words 'bend' and 'congeniality' and the idiom 'bring it on' were not sufficiently well known in German.

A personal favourite is 'Bube, Dame, König, grAS' for 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels', mainly because it reminds me of 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy', my all-time top title for a book/film. There's something about the rhythm of those four words, an elongated example of bish-bash-bosh ablaut reduplication that simply sings in English.

And, for good measure, here's an example of a translation that chooses a faux German word for its English title to add a touch of Teutonic flavour. I give you 'The Edukators', which in the original German is the rather more prosaic 'Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei'.

But how to apply what we've learned here in practice? Well, for all you translators out there, our tip would be to always translate the title of your text last. It may well be that a more appropriate wording occurs to you in the target language than the obvious literal translation once you have properly familiarised yourself with the 'message' of the text. And if you have any favourite creative movie or book title translations that you would like to share with us, please get in touch and let us know. We'll share the best in a future blog.


Vorsprung durch Technik – Rückschritt durch Werbung (4 September 2020)

German auto powerhouse Audi recently came under fire for publishing an advert that was at worst highly inappropriate and at best a gross miscalculation. It featured a young girl eating a banana in front of one of the company's new red sports cars. The potential for misunderstanding from the symbolism is not hard to see, nor is the hazard inherent in having a small child in such close proximity to a vehicle's bumper. What were they thinking, you might ask? And the ever-watchful commentators on social media duly did. But what caught our eye about the ad was not necessarily the potentially suggestive imagery - though we would have undoubtedly also pointed this out to the customer - coupled with the accompanying language, but the quality and obviously teutonic ring to the English.

The offending strapline above the image read: "Lets your heart beat faster - in every aspect." Now, you don't need German to English X-Ray translation specs to immediately guess what the original text read. You guessed it: "Lässt das Herz höherschlagen - in jeder Hinsicht." Or probably. We weren't actually able to ascertain what the original German was. But at the very least it's clear that a German native speaker came up with this English slogan. How can we be so sure? Not just because it's a direct rendering of a German phrase. But because it's clunky and unnatural, and just doesn't work in English. So, if we're so clever, what would we have done with this? On the proviso that we would have been able to work with a more appropriate image, of course!

"Makes your heart skip a beat" springs automatically to mind, and retains the "heart" idea, as does "All your heart could desire", which nicely incorporates "in every aspect". Though this latter suggestion is perhaps a little clichéd. "Lässt das Herz höherschlagen" can also simply be rendered as "delight", "excite" etc. The options are endless, but they need to be selected by, and ideally also approved by, native speakers at every stage. In advertising, more than perhaps in any other field, knapp daneben is very much auch vorbei.

It's staggering that in this day and age companies are still using non-native speakers to produce advertising copy. We've blogged before about how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. There's no way the image should have got through even one round of approvals, but perhaps it was so borderline contentious that it distracted from what here is admittedly a secondary issue - the clunky advertising copy. And it's not the first time that a VW firm has goofed on one of their ad campaigns in recent history. The company with perhaps the only German slogan that's commonly known in the English-speaking world would do well to draw lessons from this debacle. But not just those that caused the outcry on social media.