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From great literature to great movie titles

Vorsprung durch Technik – Rückschritt durch Werbung

One less thing to worry about ... or should that be fewer?

Oblique strategies and ‘translator’s block’

Business as usual







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From great literature to great movie titles (25.09.2020)

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 (04.09.2020)

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.

One less thing to worry about ... or should that be fewer? (03.04.2020)

Supermarkets are prominent in the news at the moment for reasons that none of us could have predicted even a few months ago, and have recently imposed an 80-item limit for online orders. One part of their in-store infrastructure that is perhaps not quite as busy as usual at present is the 'ten items or less' checkout. "Or less" as opposed to "or fewer" being the subject of endless grammatical debate. Yes, for this month's blog, we'll briefly hover on the pandemic but quickly segue into the bread-and-butter of the English language and its pitfalls. Bright and breezy rather than despondent and downhearted. We'll give a quick update on how the situation is affecting us at the end, but, just as with Brexit, it's essentially business - if not life - as usual at LingServe.

So, on with the blog: I (Richard) recently corrected myself when talking to my young son. The exact wording escapes me now, but - given his age - it was probably something like: "Please throw less pieces of food on the floor ... oh, I mean, fewer pieces!" My natural inclination was to say "less", and of course, "less" would be universally understood. And, bonus, it uses one less (or one fewer?) syllable than "fewer". But as we all know, "fewer" is technically correct. And talking of being corrected, "less" to "fewer" was one aspect of my work that I remember being changed relatively often in my early days at the company. Fifteen years or so later, I'm so highly attuned to it that I can spot a fewer/less mistake a mile off!

Here's a reminder of the basic rule, which boils down to whether you're talking about countable or non-countable nouns:

Prescriptive grammar dictates that "fewer" should be used instead of "less" with nouns for countable objects and concepts. "Less" should be used only with a grammatically singular or non-countable noun.

So, "I have fewer slices of cake than my sister" but "I have less money than my sister".

The phrase "grammatically singular" is key here. Money, for example, is by definition countable but is regarded (or counts!) as an uncountable noun. "Fewer money" is impermissible even colloquially. And it doesn't even work if you specify further: Try "Everything in this store costs £10 or fewer" for size. It's a similar case for distances: See: "The pub was fewer than 5 miles from here". Because 1, 2, 3 and 4 miles away are not the only options, it could be any fraction of either of them, you have to use "less". One of the quirks of the rule is that if you can break down a countable item into its constituent parts, you need to use "less" rather than "fewer". And interestingly, there is no "fewer" equivalent if you're going in the opposite direction. My sister has more slices of cake than me and, irritatingly, she has more money than me too!

Maintaining this balancing act between prescriptive and descriptive grammar is something that all writers have to grapple with. But resisting our natural urge to streamline and make our language more efficient is sometimes something that we just have to do. Perhaps the supermarkets could have just said "Maximum 10 items" to quash the debate at the outset ...

pedants revolt2.png

We have no insight or helpful commentary to add, and are just following government guidelines and doing our best to ensure that everyone stays safe. As it says in our German email signature right now:

Das Coronavirus hat uns zwar aus dem Büro verbannt, doch dank Home Office sind wir weiter in gewohnter Weise und ohne Einschränkungen für Sie da.

Oh and the answer to the question in the title? Well, it probably depends on how many things you had to worry about in the first place. Two or more than two? It's a pedant's world out there, people! And, no, using the correct grammar did not deter the food throwing ...

Oblique Strategies and ‘translator’s block’ (28.02.2020)

In the mid-1970s, Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt came up with a method for providing a jolt to artists struggling with creative block. They called their invention Oblique Strategies. The strategies take the physical form of a deck of cards featuring simple but sometimes also cryptic instructions designed to help relieve creative block and provide inspiration. Perhaps their best-known application was in David Bowie's Berlin trilogy of albums. Some of the strategies are particular to the music industry (Imagine the music as a moving chain or caterpillar), but most are not. You will find some examples here. They even helped with the composition of this blog, specifically one of the more prosaic instructions: Take a break! Even after the research had been synthesised and some initial ideas jotted down, the writing process didn't exactly flow freely. But it did after a short break, which perhaps chimes with another of the strategies: Slow preparation, fast execution.

As translators, we write for a living, but are perhaps unique in the field in that we are never (or at least rarely) faced with a blank page that needs filling. By definition, we always have something to work from. It seems to make writing this blog doubly difficult. The process throws us out of our comfort zone and into the ominous realm of composing for our own audience. A common tip for aspiring writers is to simply get something down on paper and work from there. We find a similar thing applies to the blog. The first draft is painful and hard work, but once it's done, we have our ‘source text’ to refine and improve.

Of course, blank pages are not our everyday bread and butter. Working on something that has already been written is. And that would, on the face of it, seem like the ultimate restriction. But it is perhaps the restrictions placed upon us that can inspire and indeed call for our greatest moments of creativity. The one-word heading containing an untranslatable German pun. The sentence stretching half a page containing a maze of clauses and subclauses. We can assure you that translator's block is a very real phenomenon and that we all have our various tips and tricks for resolving it, some of which perhaps align in spirit to Eno and Schmidt's Oblique Strategies. My personal favourite is simply asking a colleague or other person for their opinion. The metaphorical pulling of the How would someone else do it? card. Use unqualified people or perhaps even Tape your mouth (reversing the instruction in this case). Some of the Oblique Strategies are eerily relevant: Make something implied more definite. Germans love a passive construction, and making the implicit subject of the sentence explicit can make all the difference in translation. Some are less relevant of course: Do the words need changing? Well, yes, otherwise we wouldn't be stuck :)

I think we translators all use something similar to the Oblique Strategies in our day-to-day work, often perhaps without really thinking about it. Whether it's switching the order of the sentence around, turning verbs into nouns or nouns into verbs, removing fluff and filler or adding a little something to make a sentence sing, the amount of creative energy that goes into our work can sometimes be quite surprising - and surprisingly exhausting!

Business as usual (31.01.2020)

Today, the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. We have made no secret of the fact that we have always wanted the UK to remain a full and active member of the European Union and to participate fully in its future development. However, we acknowledge the fact that Brexit is now going to happen and will adapt accordingly should circumstances require us to do so. Our sincere wish is that the negotiations between the UK and EU over the coming months and years result in the closest possible relationship.

Specifically, 11 o'clock tonight marks the beginning of what is known as the transition period. This will last until the end of the year, provided that Boris Johnson does not request an extension, which he has promised he will not do. During this period, EU law will continue to apply in the United Kingdom, and there will be no noticeable changes to most people’s lives or working situations. Of course, Brexit will be far from ‘done’, to borrow the key line from Johnson’s election campaign. There remain a raft of issues to be resolved and decisions to be taken, and the outcome of many, if not most, of these are still unclear. In short, we are still uncertain about the precise terms of the UK’s separation from its biggest and closest trading partner.

As a provider of services, we are very unlikely to be affected by the imposition of any tariffs in connection with a negotiated trade deal or even in a no-deal situation, which remains a possibility given the tight deadline for negotiations and the self-imposed strictures of Johnson’s government. We would therefore like to signal to our customers, freelancers and all members of the LingServe family that it is very much business as usual as far as we are concerned. Our objective is to continue providing the same high-quality service for companies and organisations in the German-speaking countries, and we currently see nothing on the horizon that will prevent us from doing so.

If you have any questions or concerns regarding Brexit or our services, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

On a more positive note, the LingServe team will be out this evening to celebrate Louisa’s tenth year with the company. A graduate of the University of Leeds, Louisa began working for the company in February 2010 after spending nine years as a translator and coordinator for SAP's inhouse translation department in Walldorf. It is something of a double celebration for us too, as we have now formally welcomed Jana back into the fold. Jana left LingServe in 2018 but continued to work for us on a freelance basis. However, she is now back permanently with the company and it feels like she never left at all!