Lingserve language solutions

A little Christmas reading

(Ge)runde Sache

We’ve seen it all before

Fools rush in

From great literature to great movie titles

Vorsprung durch Technik – Rückschritt durch Werbung

Oblique strategies and 'translator's block'

Business as usual?

A book about lie-ins or a book with lies in it?

Get ready for Brexit, or maybe not ...

Collaborative effort

Musings on menu translations

Gasse zum Weissen Hirsch?

Be our Valentine
Deutsch lernen – lohnt es sich überhaupt?

Le freak, c'est chic

A fresh take on placeholder text

The eagle-eyed translator

Hygge schmugge

How many translators does it take to change a lightbulb?

Out but not down

In or out

A tidy mind

What's your punctuation pitch?

Translating English into English

What's in a name?

Negative equity

Theme on!

Let him have it

LingServe's top five translation tools

My kingdom for a Duden!

Congratulations Germany

When is a Tippspiel a sweepstake?

Bitte einfach mal drüber schauen

Are raccoons always clean?!

The best part of working as a team

Good things come to those who wait

Why the world still needs translators

Wörterbücher in den falschen Händen

Archive entries (miscellaneous)

A little Christmas reading (17 December 2021)

In terms of subjects to riff off in our blog intros, our current government really is the Christmas gift that keeps on giving. We can confirm we definitely didn't hold a party last year and that no rules were broken! This year though, before the emergence of Omicron, we did have a small inhouse gathering, which included a festive quiz. We can confirm that no rules were broken this time around either, i.e. none of the home-based participants Googled the answers (as far as we know …).

But, joking aside, when we as translators used to attend non-work Christmas parties in pre-pandemic times, small talk would inevitably lead us to reveal what we do for a living, which led to the inevitable question: “So, you must be fluent in German, right?” Which would be the most obvious requirement from a non-translator’s point of view. And, yes, it is definitely needed for conversing with customers etc. But actually the most important skill for translators is being able to write elegantly and coherently in the language they are translating into, usually their native language.

One way of keeping our written English in tip-top condition is to read authentic target language texts. Of course, as providers of high-quality German to English translations, our services are in great demand, so it’s sometimes hard to find time! And there’s an element of a busman’s holiday feel to spending the evening or weekend reading. But it is possible to make it quite a targeted exercise, the benefits of which are twofold. Not only can you confirm that the existing creative translations in your toolbox are actually used in the field, but you can also mine the texts for new ideas to employ in future translations. Essentially, you can mentally back translate certain choice phrases and commit them to memory – or to a digital dictionary – ready to retrieve when needed.

We are experts in financial translation, and the subject is much less dry than people might imagine. In fact, it’s one of the areas where we can be at our most creative. Especially when the subject matter is developments in the capital markets, which often simply reflect what is going in the wider world.

Here are a few examples of the kind of phrases we mean, taken from an article about FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google) stocks in a UK-based investment company’s magazine:

“Boasting some of the loftiest price to earnings (PE) ratios on the market …”

“Lofty” makes a great alternative to “high” when it comes to prices and the like. It’s quite a journalistic word, but fortunately that ties in well with several of our briefs in this field.

“But we think the FAANGs have more room to run …”

The suggestion with “room to run” is that these stocks are already at an elevated price level but have potential to go even higher. It makes a good option alongside “upside potential” as a translation for the German word Gewinnchance, among others.

“But the draw of the FAANGs has always been growth …”

“Draw” as a synonym for “appeal” is something that we have often used in tourism translations in the past, but going forward (more on that phrase later) we’ll be keeping it on file for texts related to the financial markets too. The talk there is often of stocks’ Attraktivität or how interessant to investors they might be.

“But to retain its seat at the high-growth table …”

“Retaining a seat at a table” (“high-growth” being a context-specific addition of course) is a lovely phrase that can be used in all sorts of contexts from sports to music. No German equivalent immediately springs to mind, but it nonetheless pays to keep a mental inventory of these kinds of idioms for when an opportunity does present itself.

“Apple’s service arm, which includes subscription-based offerings like Apple Music and App development fees …”

Some of the best locutions are figurative and can really help paint a picture. “Arm” is a case in point as a more interesting and concise way of translating Segment, Geschäft or Sparte than “segment”, “business”, or “division”, say. A nod here to “offerings” too as an often overlooked (maybe for some too obvious) translation for Angebot(e).

“If Apple is to remain a hot growth stock …”

Somewhat counterintuitively, we’ve chosen our final item not because we do like it but because we don’t. Perhaps – staying on the theme of painting a picture – the combination of “hot” and “stock” conjures too much of a culinary image, and not an especially appetising one. The point is that sometimes we do have to use phrases that are not to our taste (see “going forward” from earlier!). What matters most is that a translation should always read authentically, i.e. not like a translation.

With any luck we’ll have a chance to do a little reading during what will be a well-deserved Christmas break – and maybe some fiction instead of financial literature! It has been another strange year and we wish for better, and more normal times next year. We hope you all stay safe and we look forward to hearing from you again in 2022.

The LingServe office will be closed from Thursday 23 December this year and will open again on Monday 3 January. Have a fantastic Christmas and a great start to 2022, and we look forward to working with you all again in the new year.

Merry Christmas / Frohe Weihnachten


(Ge)runde Sache (17 September 2021)

OK, so we've given the game away with the picture, but what would otherwise come to mind if you saw the word skytanking? For most of us here, it conjured images of someone hurtling down from the sky at great speed, perhaps a new and extreme variant of skydiving without the parachute. This sense of falling fast and hard matches the most common use of the word 'tank' as a verb in contemporary English, which is to 'fail completely, especially at great financial cost'.

The employees were called in to see the manager after the much-vaunted project tanked.

Despite its blockbuster budget, the movie tanked at the box office.

So, not really the sort of image an enterprise in the aviation sector would necessarily want to associate itself with. But a business in the airline refuelling game maybe doesn't need to rely on successful branding as much as a consumer-facing company. The photograph comes courtesy of a member of our team who recently braved the many hurdles one faces nowadays to take a trip to Germany. A linguist is never completely off duty it seems, even while on an aeroplane!

Skytanking follows in a long and rich tradition of using English gerunds and other pseudo-English words ending in -ing in German. The classic example 'ein Smoking' for a dinner jacket can be dated back as far as the 19th century, although this particular false friend is apparently also present in a number of other European languages. What exactly constitutes a gerund or simply a noun ending in -ing is a bit of a grey area and beyond the scope of this blog. This particular deep dive on the finer points of the grammar of these words illustrates just how complex the definitions can be.

It is interesting that 'ein Smoking' has an old-fashioned feel and that 'Skytanking' does actually, regardless of whether its name might be misunderstood out of context, perform what is presumably the intention of conveying a modern feel. Even another classic of any Denglish fluff piece, 'Public Viewing', now has a faintly quaint sound to it, harking as it does back to the heady days of the 2006 World Cup.

Another amusing example (or at least amusing to us native speakers of English) of this particular type of Anglicism in German is 'Baby shooting' (a baby photoshoot), and we once had to diplomatically inform a customer who had included the word 'Dogging' in their German text – to suggest 'jogging with a dog' – that it indicates something rather less wholesome to us! We had thought this was such an obvious faux pas, and bound to be pointed out by English native speakers, that it would have disappeared from the contemporary German canon. Indeed, most references to it on German websites, at least, are now quite old. But to our great surprise, it clearly still lingers and actually a new 'variant of concern' has emerged: 'Cross-Dogging'. The mind boggles ...

As we wrap up this blog, we'll finish with a classic piece of Denglish - 'ein Happy End' - that eschews the -ing form (a happy ending is of course perfectly acceptable English), perhaps because of the cognate Ende in German.

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.

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.

Oblique Strategies and ‘translator’s block’ (28 February 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!

A book about lie-ins or a book with lies in it? (29.11.2019)

The blog is a little off our usual beat this month, but is undoubtedly topical in the current political climate, as the United Kingdom heads towards an era-defining general election.

In the past year or so, I (Richard) have recommended the book Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker to various colleagues, after its message resonated with me. In some of these recommendation emails and conversations, I'm sure I used the word 'life-changing'. In fact, I know that I hesitated before advising someone to read the book because of the impact I thought it might have on them. To summarise its message, sleep is much more important than we ever thought, none of us (in the Western world at least) are getting enough of it, and that's having dramatic consequences on our health and wellbeing. Or, to put a more positive spin on it, there are few areas of life that can't be improved by getting more, or better quality, sleep.

However, as I recently discovered, a blog post has now gone viral that dismisses many of the book's claims as either pop or pseudo-science at best or blatant misrepresentation of data or fact invention at worst. I read the blog (warning, it's a long one) https://guzey.com/books/why-we-sleep/ and felt deflated and more than a little perturbed afterwards. Had I been taken in by the book? Or were its findings actually more or less accurate and I'm now being taken in by this blog post? Does Walker believe so passionately in his cause that his book is based more on bias than hard science? Who has time to check all the facts and references in their non-fiction reading anyway?

But having said all that, I think I am now getting better sleep. So, is that a placebo effect or are Walker's findings and recommendations valid overall, but perhaps dressed up with suspect fact? You'll already notice that there are many more questions being asked in this post than answers provided, and of course our remit and your time and attention are restricted. The answer in this case is that I simply don't know. Let's just say that the ball is now firmly in Walker's court for a rebuttal of the post and it is eagerly awaited.

In our times of empty promises emblazoned on the side of buses, this plays into a wider concern about what we can and cannot believe. Is a lie or exaggeration of the truth in some cases acceptable if it serves a bigger goal? Given some of the spending pledges currently being bandied around by the major British parties, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was the only way to win an election! And if the UK had voted against Brexit because of overblown claims by the Remain campaigners back in 2016, would any of us here have complained? One thing is clear, it's getting harder and harder to discern truth from untruth (I will pointedly resist using the term 'fake news'). But perhaps it was ever thus. I remember reading a health book from the 1920s that recommended waking up and having a cigarette in bed if you were suffering from insomnia. Sleep well, dear reader, but please don't light up!

Get ready for Brexit, or maybe not ... (31.10.2019)

It's the year 2191 and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of England and Wales, Theodora Xantavia Mogg-Johnson, travels to New Brussels by Spitfire for the curious annual ceremony known only as Brextension, in which the PM meets the President of the United States of Europe and engages in a ritual exchange of promises. She commits to swapping her burgundy passport and straight banana for a blue passport and 'bendy' banana, before receiving written assurance that the country will soon have 'taken back control'. The origins of these bizarre customs are lost in the mists of time but what's certain is that the tradition will go on forever!

At LingServe, when we have a deadline, we always stick to it - do or die! We allow ourselves a bit more leeway with our blogs, of course. But here we are anyway at the end of October with our regular(ish) monthly blog. Away from Brexit and Boris, we've been busy with Q3 reports and the usual mix of financial, tourism and marketing translations, among other things. And one of our team has also managed to get in some training combined with a trip to Vienna. Here's Louisa's report from the always beautiful Austrian capital:

"At LingServe, we're always looking out for relevant CPD opportunities. So I was pleased to find that a translation company based in Vienna was offering compact seminars on topics relevant to my areas of translation. At the start of October, I attended four one-day courses on the subjects of Solvency II and money laundering, financial instruments and hybrid capital, capital markets supervision and risk management. Perhaps not the most exciting subjects at first glance, but without doubt of huge relevance to our specialist fields! The courses were held by an expert on banks, stock markets and capital markets who has wide-ranging experience in the fields of compliance and risk management. It was great to gain some background knowledge about the areas in which I translate and hear her stories from behind the scenes. The seminars also gave me a chance to talk to other translators, who included people working in inhouse translation departments at public-sector bodies and companies as well as freelancers. I even met the colleague of an old friend from university.

The seminars were held in Vienna and I of course extended my trip by a couple of days so that I could explore Austria's capital. It is a beautiful city with impressive buildings around every corner. I visited a few art galleries, including the Albertina and the Hundertwasser museum, and explored the grounds of Schönbrunn Palace. And given that I'm a keen hiker, I walked up through the vineyards - in Vienna, yes! - to the top of Kahlenberg hill, where I was rewarded with lovely views over the city, Danube and surrounding countryside. Climbing the steep hill helped to offset the vast amounts of sachertorte that I ate all week!"


Collaborative effort (27.09.2019)

Click on the title above to read this blog (opens as a PDF).

Musings on menu translations (31.07.2019)

The holiday season is upon us, and with it the prospect of dining in far-off locations, so we have decided to offer a few thoughts on the subject of translation in restaurants. Such businesses fall into an interesting niche in our industry. They operate on tight margins, so don't generally have the budget to have their menus professionally translated. But, when you think about it, the words they use are among the most prominent – and for some, most important – that you will come across in a foreign country. You browse a tourism brochure, glean times from a timetable, but you study a menu.

And it's a type of text where nuance is everything and where words really matter. The adjectives restaurants use to describe their food can make or break a diner's decision, so they need to employ them with care, or just stick to plain descriptions. A recent dining experience in Germany offered us the prospect of 'tangy gravy', an offputting prospect until we read the equivalent German, würzige Soße. 'Rich gravy' would have been a better choice here. Of course, menus also change regularly, often on a daily basis. And the format itself – with its obvious space restrictions – really only lends itself to translation in a handful of other languages at most. In tourist destinations, you may find separate menus for German, French, Italian, etc. but (to some) that might suggest a never-changing menu, a bored chef and a potential ceiling to the quality you can expect. Laminate at your peril in a world that increasingly expects chalk-written specials boards.

But perhaps digitalisation is changing the paradigm here. As linguists, where no translation is provided, we are perhaps more inclined to try talking to the serving staff, attempting to decipher the descriptions ourselves, or simply giving in to adventure. Members of the younger generation might instead scan the menu with one of the many gist translation apps that are available – which, for the restaurant, handily shifts the responsibility for any bloopers from table to technology.

Such is the fame afforded to menu translation fails, that dining out in a foreign land is one of the few occasions we can think of where a non-translator might notice and comment on the high quality of a translation. Usually, we want our work to go unnoticed – to not read like a translation – but here perhaps the situation is a little different.

Due to the aforementioned budget restrictions, restaurants simply aren't the kind of companies that LSPs like us would even think to target. A restaurant located in one of the hotel chains might have access to professional services, but beyond that it seems unlikely. And the German-speaking lands are perhaps slightly different from UK and US restaurants in the sense that family-run establishments are more prevalent than chains that might have greater access to centralised resources. Maybe a lone freelancer working locally might consider striking a deal where they eat for free once a month in return for ad-hoc translation services? Though we'd add at this point that translating menus can actually be very challenging! On that note, suggestions for making Handkäs mit Musik sound appetising to non-German (and even non-Hessian!) visitors are always welcome ...

Gasse zum Weissen Hirsch? (28.06.2019)

When a translator is reading, they're never truly off duty. Especially when they're reading something written in the language they translate into (for us, mainly English) that features the language they translate out of (for us, German).

Here's a case in point, which hopefully goes some way to demonstrating our appreciation of the finer points of language. The sentence below is from a Guardian article about the football team Union Berlin's recent promotion to the top Bundesliga division.

"Referee Christian Dingert ruled the goal out in the first ever use of VAR at Stadion An Der Alten Försterei (Stadium at the Old Forester's House)."

The sentence made us stop in our tracks and instantly switch to translator mode. Putting aside the merits of the actual translation of Försterei for a moment, our initial thought was - oh - that gloss, the explanation in brackets, is most distracting. While certainly not a mistake, it disrupts the flow of the text and simply doesn't provide the reader with any useful information. A piece of trivia at best, but really the name would require further explanation if that were the case.

At a stretch, we might imagine the translated name lends weight to the impression the article conveys of Union Berlin being something of an underdog. They are the first club from East Germany's Oberliga to play in the Bundesliga since Energie Cottbus were relegated in 2009; fellow East Germans RB Leipzig are essentially a brand-new club.

Had we been asked to proofread such a text we would choose to omit the gloss and leave the stadium name to stand on its own (or simply put 'Union Berlin's stadium'). Who knows - perhaps the author did the same and this was an editor's 'helpful' addition. Most non-translators would probably not have even noticed the gloss or would just have read over it or ignored it completely. But we translators are a peculiar breed. Once you become a translator, you never do read in quite the same way again

PS: For those still baffled by this blog post's title, it's our way of illustrating the point with an intentionally comical translation of White Hart Lane, the name of English football club Tottenham Hotspur's stadium.

Be our Valentine! (14.02.2019)

The course of true love never did run smooth, as a famous resident of Stratford-upon-Avon once remarked. But we thought we would mark Valentine’s Day this year by setting out our idea of true love. Our perfect (translation) partner  ...

... is looking for a stable, long-term relationship
(the more we get to know your business, the better we’ll be able to translate your texts)
... is considerate, thoughtful and inclusive
(keeps us in the loop, provides draft versions of upcoming reports)
... is looking to work together in a spirit of genuine partnership
(treats us as an equal)
... is articulate and able to express themselves clearly
(writes clear and coherent texts)
... is prepared to give their partner sufficient time and space
(the more time we have to translate, the better the end product)
... says what they mean and means what they say
(gives us clear deadlines and instructions)
... is always on hand and ready to help
(provides prompt and comprehensive answers to our queries)
... is self-aware and knows their limitations
(no DIY translations!)
... is open and communicative
(gives us constructive feedback, nobody’s perfect after all!)

Naturally, we love all our customers and we accept that none of them are perfect or could possibly hope to fulfil all of these criteria, but we can all at least strive for perfection. And as any relationship is, of course, a two-way street, we would love to hear from translation buyers and other translators about what they look for in their perfect (translation) partner.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Deutsch lernen – lohnt es sich überhaupt? (31.08.2018)

It's become something of an annual tradition here on or around A-level results day for the media spotlight to fall on the decline in the number of teenagers studying languages beyond the age of sixteen. Much hand-wringing ensues, newspaper columns are written, usually from the perspective of someone whose life has been enriched by learning a language, but not a whole lot seems to get done. Rinse and repeat the next year.

This year, there were at least some more unusual takes on the matter, including a tweet from Chair of the Vote Leave campaign, Gisela Stuart, which was - as is the fashion these days - almost immediately seized upon by her fellow Twitterers. With some justification, they pointed out that advocating leaving the European Union was hardly a good example to set young language learners. Meanwhile, the Telegraph (another bastion of Brexit) set forth the perspective of a German living in the UK who essentially tells us not to bother learning his mother tongue in the first place. His amusing comment piece poses a perfectly valid question: why do we Brits persist in second language instruction when the success rate is so low and when the de facto lingua franca for the rest of the world is English?

Comparisons are often drawn between the number of people in the UK with a good command of a second language and the number of people in other countries who can converse in a second language. This simple comparison fails to recognise the fact that for the vast majority of people in those other countries, the second language is English. British teenagers will understandably be much less motivated to continue acquiring a foreign language if they know that their mother tongue will be understood almost everywhere that they travel. For only a few does it turn from a dry academic chore to a fun, life-affirming activity. The incentives and therefore levels of motivation in non-English speaking countries are of a different magnitude entirely. People living in such places need at least some level of English to communicate with others around the world, and not just with native speakers of English of course. And for many jobs, particularly in multinational companies, a good command of English is pretty much mandatory. But back to the UK: an economist might say that there's an immense opportunity cost for all stakeholders to learning languages in school. Investing so many resources into teaching something that most children will utterly fail to retain does, on the face of it, make little sense. However, the same criticism could be levelled at many other subjects on the curriculum, and of course not everything can be quantified in terms of its return on investment - to borrow another economists' phrase.

It is often countered that learning a language enables you to see the world from another perspective, and indeed some studies show that it can even help you think differently. The evidence for the cognitive benefits of language learning is compelling indeed, and we would modestly claim that our horizons in the office are probably broader than most. But how much are these benefits really felt by the wider population? Some say that they learnt a language in spite of the British education system. And given the relatively poor fluency levels among pre-degree language learners in the UK, can we really be sure that increasing the number of German A-level students tenfold, say, would necessarily make all that much of a difference? The Telegraph article evoked some strong views within the office and sparked a lively debate. There isn't time or scope to fully explore the issue or reflect all our opinions within the constraints of this blog. So we'll leave you to ponder some more questions and urge you not to answer them just from your own (as a LingServe blog reader), probably bilingual, perspective: Is it worth children in English-speaking nations learning a second language at all these days? Or at least is it worth it if they continue to do so using mainstream methodologies that for the vast majority do not appear to work? Something does clearly need to be done, but perhaps the approach should be focused more on the qualitative than the quantitative aspects.

Le freak, c'est chic (29.06.2018)

The Japanese language has a term wasei-eigo 和製英語, which roughly translates as Made-in-Japan English. Examples of wasei-eigo include words such as salaryman, skinship (physical contact), cunning (cheating in an exam or test) and morning call (wake-up call). Though they look like English words and use English morphemes, they are either completely made up or simply not used in the same sense as a native speaker would use them. German has an equivalent tradition of pseudo-anglicisms - what we call Denglish - and these have been the subject of this blog on more than one occasion in the past. Famous Denglish words include Handy (for a mobile phone), Dressman (male model) and Talkmaster (talk show host), and they are not just a modern phenomenon. Ein Smoking (a tuxedo) can be found in books dating back to the 1920s. Today, in true Sauregurkenzeit (English: silly season) fashion, we are turning our attention to the word 'freak'.

According to the dictionary, a 'freak' is primarily a pejorative term for a person with an unusual physical abnormality. It can also be used to describe an extreme or unexpected event or situation (freak weather, a freak accident) or a person who is obsessed with a particular activity or interest. In line with this third definition, we've increasingly noticed that in colloquial German, 'freak' is used synonymously with the word 'fan' or 'geek' but often in a subtly different way to English. Here are some examples drawn from the internet and our own work in which the use of 'freak' really jumps off the page to the reader of German who is also a native speaker of English (i.e. us here at LingServe), and therefore of course would require special treatment in translation.

Frau mit Freak-Factor, the heading of a Spiegel article from 2013 about Yahoo's then newly appointed CEO Marissa Mayer, uses 'freak', presumably for alliterative purposes, where in English we would probably favour 'geek'. So if we were given this heading to translate, we might go for something like 'Geek in her DNA' or 'Getting her geek on'. Calling her a 'freak', however, would create an expectation in the English reader's mind that Marissa Mayer is abnormal in a very negative way, and perhaps even that she has some kind of physical deformity. 'Female freak factor' would retain the alliteration but open up a whole other can of worms when it comes to gender-equality in writing. And it simply wouldn't create the right (or any?) expectation of what the article to follow may be about.

In the next example, a restaurant website uses an on-trend hybrid of German and English, often quite successfully but with some notable examples to the contrary:


Leaving the connotations of 'tasty man' aside, you can be driven by many things in your work - a passion for your craft, a motivation to earn money, professional pride, perhaps - but you simply can't be 'driven by freak'. Interestingly, the site also features the wording 'the (con)temporary restaurant'. This technique, of setting one morpheme off from the remainder of the word using brackets, is a popular form of wordplay in modern German. Presumably here, the intention is to highlight the pop-up nature of the restaurant by bracketing off 'temporary'. But I can't help feeling your average English reader's eyes will be drawn more heavily to the word 'con' - not particularly the kind of word you want to associate with a dining experience. But then if it works for German readers, presumably the primary audience, who are we to say what is right or wrong?

Here's an anonymised example from one of our translations

Welcher Oldtimer-Freak kennt schon den Saporoshez SAS 865A, der einst in den 60er Jahren in der DDR verkauft wurde?

Translating 'freak' as 'freak' just doesn't work in this example. It's difficult to say why, but perhaps 'freak' - quite a strong word - simply draws too much attention to itself. We found it was best replaced with 'enthusiasts'. Compare and contrast the following:

Few classic car freaks will have seen a Saporoshez SAS 865A before, a car sold in the GDR in the 1960s.

Few classic car enthusiasts will have seen a Saporoshez SAS 865A before, a car sold in the GDR in the 1960s.

Indeed, we have now become so used to having to 'translate' English words in German that it took until the last proofread of this blog to realise that we had translated Oldtimer in the sentence above as 'classic car' in English, something that to us would simply be obvious and barely worthy of comment. In English, an 'old-timer' is an alter Hase.

The bottom line is that an XY freak in German can be an XY freak in English. But not always. As with every word in translation, including those that at first glance appear to be as English as strawberries and cream at Wimbledon, it needs to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Interestingly, while researching this post, we came across a poster used to advertise one of the 'freaks' (not our choice of word, we hasten to add) in the sideshows that were popular until well into the 20th century. It uses the word 'nondescript' in a manner that seems quite odd to a modern reader and means almost the complete opposite of what it does today - something that is lacking in distinctive or interesting features or characteristics. Which would certainly not be the case for poor old Julia Pastrana. Thankfully, we live in more enlightened times today.


An example of a semantic shift over time rather than country borders.

A fresh take on placeholder text (02.01.2018)

Bored of lorem ipsum? We noticed this unusual take on placeholder text while doing some research on the web and thought it was just brilliant! So good in fact, that we just had to offer our own translation of it. See what you think:

Ich bin Blindtext. Von Geburt an. Es hat lange gedauert, bis ich begriffen habe, was es bedeutet, ein blinder Text zu sein: Man macht keinen Sinn. Man wirkt hier und da aus dem Zusammenhang gerissen. Oft wird man gar nicht erst gelesen. Aber bin ich deshalb ein schlechter Text? Ich weiss, dass ich nie die Chance haben werde, im Stern zu erscheinen. Aber bin ich darum weniger wichtig? Ich bin blind! Aber ich bin gerne Text. Und sollten Sie mich jetzt tatsächlich zu Ende lesen, dann habe ich etwas geschafft, was den meisten "normalen" Texten nicht gelingt.

I am placeholder text and always have been. It took a long time before I understood what it meant to be placeholder text. I don't make any sense. It sometimes seems like I don't belong where I am. Often people don't even read me. But does that then mean I'm badly written? I know I'll never have the chance to see my name up in lights. But does that mean I'm any less important? I am what I am. I enjoy being text. And if you do now read me right to the end, then I'll have achieved something that most normal texts can only dream of.

The eagle-eyed translator (29.08.2017)

We are often told by our customers that we have Adleraugen. This is because they appreciate our ability to not only accurately convey both the broad message and the finer nuances of their texts, but also spot typos, ambiguities, factual errors and logical inconsistencies that have failed to register on the original author's radar. This has a lot to do with the fact that the person writing a text is so immersed in their own thought process, and is so clear in their own mind about what they want to say, that they fail to see the flaws in their writing or to view it from the reader's perspective. It's why writers have editors. And why the Vier-Augen process ('four eyes' only in a figurative sense, as we'll go on to explain) is critical to ensuring high-quality translation - it often takes a second, fresh pair of eyes to spot the flaw in the translator's writing. 

Take the following sentence, for example. And be sure to read the English first, as we do as part of our Vier-Augen checking:

Besides Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google make up the FANG cohort.

Neben Facebook sind Amazon, Netflix und Google Teil des FANG-Kaders. 

You probably had to read the English twice to understand what was meant. It is clear on second reading that a pause is needed after Facebook and that the four company names are not meant to be read as a continuous list. This may have been clear in the mind of the translator (having read Neben Facebook) but will, of course, not be apparent to an English reader with no recourse (or indeed ability to read) the German text. The example also illustrates the issues that can arise with close translations of neben when it appears at the start of a sentence. A freer rewrite relieves the ambiguity:

Facebook, Amazon and Netflix and Google make up the FANG cohort

The FANG cohort is made up of Facebook together with ... 

Besides Facebook, other members of the FANG cohort include ... 

Picking up factual errors and inconsistencies is, of course, something that machine translation may never be in a position to do and is something that we believe adds substantial value to our service. It almost always involves us going back to our customers and potentially initiating changes in both the source and target text as part of an iterative process.

And we are in good company here. The famous German novelist and intellectual Günter Grass had this to say about translators: 

"Translators are my most thorough readers. They take the author at his word, relentlessly hunting him down. They are unwilling to gloss over incomprehensible expressions or the author's inaccuracies with vague and ambiguous approximations. They want to know exactly what you meant. They penetrate the author."

Indeed, Grass and his publishers held workshops for their translators every time one of his new books appeared. This became quite a tradition over the years and was much loved by the translators. Grass was usually able to join them at the workshops, which lasted for up to a week.

John le Carré, spy novelist and renowned Teutophile, has expressed similar views to those of Grass. In a speech given during an award ceremony at the German Embassy in London for teachers of German, he said:

"No wonder then that the most conscientious editors of my novels are not those for whom English is their first language, but the foreign translators who bring their relentless eye to the tautological phrase or factual inaccuracy - of which there are far too many. My German translator is particularly infuriating."

Of course, we would never want to infuriate any customer, but we hope Le Carré's words show why we are so keen to ask questions and why we are so likely to pick up on things the author simply fails to see. This is perhaps because they have been unable to distance themselves properly from their text, or because they are assuming knowledge on the part of their readers that those readers do not have - which may of course be a reasonable assumption in the cultural context of the source language, but not in translation. 

On one occasion we were even asked to undertake a full proofread of a German report before it went to print, simply because we had proved so good at spotting errors in the past. However, experience has shown us that when we simply read through a text, we are far less likely to spot any errors than when we translate it. There is something about reading and re-reading a sentence, double-checking and then triple-checking for every meaning and nuance, that means we're very likely to spot anything that is amiss. 

And if the mistake is not spotted at this stage, it will invariably catch the eye during the second stage of our inhouse translation process - the Vier-Augen check by a second, senior member of staff. Incidentally, like the word konsequentVier-Augen is one of those German phrases that doesn't really have an exact equivalent in English. Any translation of it would have to be tailored to the specific context. It's most definitely another case of having to watch out for the ‘false friend': ‘four-eyes' in English is not the equivalent, but rather a derogatory term, commonly heard in the schoolyard, for an individual who wears glasses.

Hygge schmugge (04.11.2016)

One of the great joys of writing this blog is coming up with new ways to challenge our inhouse German native speakers - those tasked with turning out a Teutonic version of this blog - with an 'untranslatable' heading. I believe this is the pinnacle of my achievements.

So what's up with hygge then? If you haven't heard this word recently, then you clearly haven't been reading the news (we'll excuse you if you're not living in the UK). The craze for this Danish version of cosiness seems to have come from nowhere and is the phrase du jour in the lifestyle pages. But what does it mean? There are various definitions out there, but we find that the VisitDenmark website sums it up nicely:

Hard to explain and even harder to pronounce, the Danish word hygge (sounds a bit like "hooga") roughly translates to cosiness, but that definition doesn't quite cover it.

In essence, hygge means creating a nice, warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people around you. The warm glow of candlelight is hygge. Friends and family - that's hygge too. And let's not forget the eating and drinking - preferably sitting around the table for hours on end discussing the big and small things in life.

Sound familiar? Well it should do to speakers of German. As soon as we started hearing the word hygge, most of us here thought: "Ah, right, they just mean gemütlichkeit". That word is itself often expressed as being something uniquely German, but might our Dutch cousins protest with their gezelligheid? Perhaps the concept of hygge is not so bound to Denmark after all. And as for it being untranslatable? In one word, perhaps - though you could make an argument, in certain contexts, for convivial. But we never like to take the easy way out at LingServe and are not afraid of using as many words as it takes to explain gemütlichkeit. In fact, we're all so used to translating gemütlichkeit based on the context at hand that we don't actually have many dictionary entries for it. But the two that we do have are prime examples of how this culturally specific word really does require some elucidation if you're going to accurately convey its message:

German gemütlichkeit – that warm feeling you get inside when sharing good food in good company.

‌‌The proverbial German gemütlichkeit is difficult to explain. But you won't go far wrong if you think of good food, good company, a drink or two and plenty of time to enjoy it all!

It can be a little annoying to be told that you have no concept of hygge or gemütlichkeit in your culture just because you don't have a specific word for it. Holding a warming glass of hot chocolate in the company of friends and family at a firework celebration is undoubtedly hyggeligt or gemütlich, but we perhaps just don't call it that - or anything. There's no particular German word for the English word 'vicarious', for example, but we're pretty sure that such a notion exists in the minds of German speakers!

Incidentally, the rhetorical device I've employed in the heading is called schm reduplication and is of US (Yiddish) origin. Who knew? It's probably most commonly known from the wonderful turn of phrase fancy-schmancy. As in, I went to a fancy-schmancy restaurant last night. As our English readers will know, this is a handy way of dismissing something without being too rude or unfriendly, allowing you to be griping and cute at the same time. The rules of shm reduplication are not taught in school, yet we all have a pretty good feel for how it's done: repeat a word, then put a shm- before the vowel sound in the first syllable: Blog schmog, tired schmired, clock schmock. Have a go yourself, non-natives! Here, by the way, is how our German translator dealt with the title Hygge schmugge.

Q: How many translators does it take
to change a light bulb?

A: It depends on the context ... (29.07.2016)

That's a favourite joke of ours in the office, but, as is often the case with jokes, it's funny (if you're a translator at least) because it's true. When it comes to translation, context really is king. In fact, when it comes to almost any aspect of language, context is king. What it boils down to is that different words have different meanings depending on where they appear on the page or on a screen, how they are used, who they are aimed at, and - particularly in the case of spoken language - what the speaker was thinking at the time and what tone of voice they were using (see Let him have it!). That's just how language works (and, incidentally, why machine translation doesn't really work). So why the blog entry? Well, every so often, we are sent lists of single words or fragments of text to translate, but we are not told how they will be used or, more importantly, in what context they will appear.

We always ask for that context, of course, but here's a more detailed explanation as to why.

If a customer wants certain key words translated for their website, they have to do more than simply provide us with a list of those words. We need the link for the website, a screenshot, or at the very least a precise explanation of how those words are going to be used. In a tourism context, for example, the word Anreise could easily be used as the heading for general travel information for a particular location, but also as the label for a date field indicating when you will be arriving at, say, a hotel. The two potential translations 'Travel information' and 'Date of arrival' are completely different.

Prepositions are also particularly tricky when we don't have access to further context. If we are given the word 'von' to translate but don't know exactly where this will appear in a sentence, we can only guess as to whether ‘from', 'of' or 'by' will fit.

von A nach B would give us 'from' (from A to B)

For Das Mitbringen von Tieren ist unzulässig we would need 'of' (The carriage of animals is not permitted)

Das Gemälde wurde von Leonardo da Vinci gemalt calls for a 'by' (The painting is by Leonardo da Vinci)

Working out if a German noun is plural can also be tricky, especially with picture captions, where the image will be providing the context. If we have the word Radfahrer, for example, but no picture, how are we to know whether Radfahrer refers to one cyclist or multiple cyclists? For the caption Mädchen am Brunnen a visual aid would also be required to determine how many girls (Mädchen, one or multiple) were by the fountain (Brunnen). Or indeed whether she/they are by a fountain or a well (the German word Brunnen can be either).

And let's not forget nouns, which are always capitalised in German but not in English, of course. For translations of web forms in particular, we need to be 100% sure whether single nouns will appear on their own - in which case capitalisation is usually the right solution - or will be preceded by a variable. For example, should we translate Tage simply as 'Days' or will that Tage be preceded by a number, in which case the right translation would be a lower case 'days'.

In an ideal world, we would therefore not only get to see the original text in its full context - so we can refer to this while we are translating - but we'd also get to see our finished translation in context. We can then check that everything looks and sounds OK and request any final tweaks. In a nutshell, the more context we have, the better the translation.

Out, but not down (24.06.2016)

Much as we may regret the decision and consider it a backward step, the people of the United Kingdom have expressed their democratic wish for our country to secede from the European Union. The actual process of secession will be long and complicated and will undoubtedly result in considerable political and economic turmoil over the months and years ahead.

This is an entirely unprecedented situation and there remains a huge amount of uncertainty about the ultimate nature of the future relationship between the UK and the European Union. Everything is now up for negotiation.

No matter what shape that relationship takes, however, we would like to assure all our customers that the relationship between LingServe and its customers elsewhere in Europe will remain completely unchanged. There will be no impact on the nature or the quality of the service we provide, nor will there be any change to the pricing, invoicing or payment of our services.

Despite the decision of our country to break or at least re-shape its ties with our neighbours across the English Channel and North Sea, we continue to see ourselves as being part of a wider European community and look forward to deepening and strengthening our ties with our customers across Europe.

In or out (03.06.2016)

As the day approaches that will decide the fate of our country in Europe, there is talk of little else in pubs and clubs and at dinner tables around the country. The tension across the nation is palpably mounting as people attempt to predict the very uncertain outcome. But that's enough about football and Euro 2016; let us turn our attention instead to the forthcoming EU referendum.

We at LingServe are more closely integrated into the wider European economy than almost any other company in the United Kingdom. The proportion of our revenue generated within the UK is a fraction of one per cent. We communicate and collaborate with our customers and business partners in Germany and other European countries on a daily basis. This, combined with the fact that we have all lived and worked in mainland Europe, and have a generally internationalist outlook on life, means that we are instinctively in favour of remaining within the EU and strengthening the UK's ties with its neighbours across the English channel.

In terms of our business, we take a very sanguine view of the outcome of the referendum. Even if the Brexiteers prevail, little is likely to change at the micro-level of our day-to-day working relationships with our customers in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. We would continue to offer the same high-quality service in exactly the same way as before. At the macro-level, there would of course be shockwaves that will create short-term economic volatility and possibly longer-term instability for the structure and cohesion of the EU as a whole.

The referendum campaign so far has been dominated by fear tactics and deliberate misinformation on both sides of the debate. This is undoubtedly due in part to a hard-headed calculation that negative campaigning works, and partly because there simply are very few hard facts to be put forward on either side of the argument. The reality is that those voting to remain in the European Union have very little idea of what its future shape and direction will be and those voting to leave have no idea as to the outcome of any future negotiations on its relationship with the UK - or indeed whether even the Union between Scotland and England would survive in the wake of a Brexit.

Everything is pointing towards it being a very close contest and we await the result with great anticipation. We will also be publishing a post-referendum blog that will express our views on the outcome. If only everything in life was as certain as football. As Gary Lineker famously said: "Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win."

A tidy mind (29.01.2016)

By Richard North

While reading ‘Spark Joy', the latest book by Japanese tidying guru Marie Kondo, a title that no doubt appeals to my OCD translator mind, I suddenly realised that I was exerting most of my energy wondering why the translator had made particular decisions, and what exotic Japanese phrases were equivalent to the English idioms used. Now, I don't speak Japanese; my knowledge extends not much further than arigato and konichiwa, but there were certain points in the book where I wondered why the translator had made this or that decision and what I might have done differently. The following passage is an example:

‘I'll never be able to tidy anyway because I'm blood type B.' (In Japan, there's a widespread belief that blood type influences personality, and type As are thought to have a stronger desire for neatness and order than type Bs.)

Here, the mention of a cultural peculiarity has necessitated the inclusion of a relatively lengthy explanation. This is known as a gloss. I can almost imagine the translator, sitting at their desk, chewing their pen, or stroking their chin, pondering how to deal with this sentence. A more prosaic alternative would read as follows:

‘I'll never be able to tidy anyway because it's just not in my nature.'

Such a formulation obviates the need for any explanation but is somehow lacking in colour, but that is perhaps only because we have a version for comparison. For the purposes of the book - teaching you how to tidy in the Japanese way - the gloss is obviously not necessary, but it certainly adds interest and what we translators call local colour. Now, at a party (yes, translators do sometimes get invited to parties, despite their OCD tendencies ...), I can happily regale people with a piece of trivia about how Japanese people think that blood types influence personality. The need to explain cultural references comes up a lot in our work too. In a recent translation, we were faced with the following sentence that describes the carnival in Bremen.

Hier ist das Motto „Samba statt Kamelle".

Samba is a word you'd expect to read in connection with a carnival, but Kamelle, meaning sweets, not so much - or perhaps only if you'd visited a German carnival before. After a bit of back and forth between translator and checker, we decided to work in a gloss explaining the sweets into a previous sentence, priming the reader for its subsequent mention:

The region's carnivals, during which sweets are thrown into the crowds, ...

At the Bremen carnival, the focus is less on sweets and more on samba.

Here, for comparison, a simpler gloss that uses brackets:

At the Bremen carnival, the focus is less on sweets (a German carnival tradition) and more on samba.

We could, of course, have simply omitted the reference to sweets entirely, which after all is present in the German more for rhythmic than informative purposes, but to do so would have lost some of the charm and local colour. The translator always has to bear in mind the target readership and purpose of a text. In this particular case, the intention is to attract visitors to Bremen, so the more local colour we are able to convey, the better.

Much like a referee in a football match, you'll know that a translator is doing their job well when you don't even notice they're there. But much like a referee watching a football match for fun, who just can't help but pass comment on his colleague's decisions, a translator reading a translation - even if they have no knowledge of the original language - will have a very different experience to your average reader.

What's your punctuation pitch? (04.12.2015)

In a Daily Writing Tips blog from April 2014, the writer quotes Fowler's Modern English Usage in a discussion about whether it's correct to follow 'e.g.' with a comma: "whether a comma follows or not is indifferent, or rather is decided by the punctuation-pitch of the writer ...".

The term 'punctuation pitch' chimed with me as a translator who has everything he writes meticulously checked by a colleague, and who in turn has to check the work of a number of other translators. What becomes clear from this process is that everyone has a slightly different 'punctuation pitch', a kind of compass that guides their decisions on whether to insert a comma in those grey-area situations.

Getting a company of seven inhouse translators and several loyal freelancers all onto the same page regarding 'punctuation pitch' can be a real challenge, even if you do have a style guide. This is highlighted by the simplest of questions:

Which of the following do you think is correct? A or B; or are both correct?

"In 2012 the country went to the polls."

"In 2012, the country went to the polls."

Ask all LingServe team members this question and chances are you won't get a unanimous answer. The only difference between the two options is, of course, the comma after 2012. The meaning is clear in both, but the question as to whether to place a comma after the year is ultimately down to personal taste. It's Geschmackssache as they say in German. Luckily for the German writer, there's no such uncertainty about grammar rules. My Kingdom for a Duden as we've said before.

In some cases, the use of a comma after an introductory phrase is useful in preventing ambiguity. 'It's time to eat Grandma' vs. 'It's time to eat, Grandma' is a classic example. And if you say "In 2013 cases of counterfeit automotive parts were vigorously prosecuted," there's a small chance you might initially read that there were 2013 cases. Unlikely but not unthinkable. So do you put a comma there but not in any other cases of 'In 2013' in your text? Wouldn't that then be inconsistent? Perhaps, but then we also have the aesthetic element to consider. Too many commas can make a text cumbersome, and we always like to put the reader first.

'In 2013' in the above example falls under the category of an introductory element, and there's lots of sometimes contradictory advice out there as to how to deal with these in terms of commas. Various sources recommend leaving out the comma after some introductory phrases, even offering arbitrary numbers of words for the minimum length (usually it's four or five).

Some people like their texts to be as free of commas as possible. Others prefer to stick with what they know. Neither's really right or wrong. There are legitimate arguments for both. So how do we at LingServe navigate this punctuation minefield? Our first line of defence is our style guide, which sets out some general (but never immutable) parameters. The second line of defence is each individual translator's best judgement in striking the right balance between clarity, consistency and reader experience.

Translating English into English? (30.10.2015)

We have a general rule at LingServe that if we encounter an English word in a German text, the default assumption should be that it needs to be 'translated'. Presuming that the English word can simply be transposed from German into English is not only lazy, but very often wrong. This is because, in the process of being adopted into another language, words also tend to get adapted, both semantically and morphologically. The best way to illustrate this is with some real-life examples from recent translation texts:

"Dabei ist man für Partnerschaften offen und arbeitet mit Universitäten, führenden Konzernen aus anderen Technologiefeldern und Offshore-Engineering-Unternehmen in Indien zusammen."

'Offshoring' is a concept from the world of international commerce, similar to outsourcing, in which certain business activities are moved from one (usually high-cost) country to another (usually low-cost) country. This is a perfectly valid term in English. However, the German writer has taken the semantic leap of describing the companies concerned as an 'offshore engineering' company. Unfortunately, that means something completely different to an English-speaking reader, bringing to mind oil rigs or wind farms on the high seas (just type the phrase 'offshore engineering' into Google Images to see at once the type of image it brings to mind).

Words containing 'off' can also cause problems in other areas. There is a concept in the world of finance of certain assets and liabilities not being reported on the balance sheet, often with the beneficial effect of improving the company's balance-sheet-related performance indicators. Such items are known as 'off-balance-sheet items'. In the absence of any convenient German equivalent, and possibly because most dubious accounting practices emanate from the Anglo-Saxon world of finance, the phrase has been readily adopted by the German financial community. In the process, however, it has also been adapted, with the word 'sheet' frequently dropped and items simply described as 'off-balance'. In this instance, we suspect there is a degree of source-language interference, as the German for 'balance sheet' is the single (and similar-sounding) word 'Bilanz'. It is therefore tempting to simply equate the word Bilanz with balance and to use it as a convenient shorthand. Following a review of one of our recent translations by German representatives of one of the Big Four auditing firms (we won't name names), we were instructed to change the wording of our translation from 'not reported on the balance sheet' to 'off-balance'. Naturally, we declined to do so and explained that 'off-balance' can only mean that the object in question is about to fall over. Not exactly the image the company was aiming for:


What's in a name? (13.07.2015)

A Swiss museum hit the headlines late last year after announcing that it was to accept the estate of Cornelius Gurlitt, the art dealer's son who hoarded a collection of paintings looted by the Nazi regime in his Munich apartment. The museum in question is the Kunstmuseum Bern, otherwise known as the Museum of Fine Arts Bern or the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Berne.

It’s not for us to comment on the ethics of this decision, but the story did remind us of how the naming conventions of Swiss-German institutions are different to the rest of the German-speaking world. The very fact that the country is a nation of four official languages means that its institutions are predisposed to catering to people who speak different languages. Most museums in the German-speaking parts of Switzerland provide a translation of their name at least in French and sometimes even in Italian too. And once you've gone that far, it seems you may as well provide an English name for your international audience as well.

It’s an example the rest of the German-speaking world would do well to emulate. Finding an official or even suitable English translation for the name of German institutions can prove challenging. Even though many of these institutions have an international dimension, they don’t always cater to an international audience. Sometimes an English name is provided on their website, but that’s not always the case. For smaller organisations, this information is frequently hidden away in the bowels of their website, and occasionally there are two or more versions to choose from. There may well, of course, be legacy translations elsewhere on the web, but these are often of dubious quality and authenticity.

There’s an increasing trend for museums and, in particular, educational establishments in Germany to treat their German names as brand names and to leave them untranslated in English. Which is fine when the reader has navigated to the institution’s website and presumably has a pretty good idea of what he or she is looking at. But where reference is made to the institution in a separate context, inserting the German name without explanation may not be understood. We therefore tend to resist this trend towards using the German name and instead create a more meaningful translation. A case in point is the Übersee-Museum in Bremen, whose name (literally, the Overseas Museum), offers little clue as to its specialism to the non-German speaker, unlike, say, the Deutsches Nationalmuseum. The approved LingServe translation for the Übersee-Museum is the Ethnological Museum.

As so often with translation, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this issue and the approach to dealing with the name in English has to be decided on a case-by-case basis; context is king and the reader’s needs are paramount.

PS: If we were being picky, we’d say a more natural English name for the Kunstmuseum Bern would be the Bern Museum of Fine Arts. A minor quibble, but the word order ‘Museum of Fine Arts Bern’ is distinctly Germanic.

Negative equity (07.05.2015)

We're currently coming to the end of annual report season, our busiest time of year. Annual reports are often hugely complex jobs in which the goalposts are constantly shifting because of the continual updates, the tight deadlines, and the involvement of various departments and stakeholders. Over the years we have become specialists in translating these important publications. And we are now able to offer an end-to-end service that includes the translation and layout of the English report directly in InDesign, the industry-standard DTP tool. For details of our expertise in annual reports and some of the pitfalls to avoid, see our previous blog entry When is a balance sheet not a balance sheet? For details of our new InDesign layout service, see the entry New year. New services.

When it comes to annual reports, the devil is very much in the detail. We have far less leeway than in other types of text to diverge from the German source text when it seems prudent to do so. The translation must in all cases faithfully render the precise meaning of the original. There is a legal requirement to ensure that all users of financial statements are provided with exactly the same information. In a recent example, we were actually instructed to reproduce a mistake in the English version of an annual report because the German had already been published with that error.

But in certain cases, the details can take on a life of their own. A case in point is the use of the term 'at-equity' in German, which morphologically might look like an English word but is to all intents and purposes a purely German construction. 'At-equity' is an anglicism used to describe the equity method of accounting for consolidated entities in which the parent company holds a significant stake - usually greater than or equal to 20 per cent but less than a majority. Rather than reporting all the assets, liabilities, income and expenses of the entity, as with full subsidiaries, under the equity method of accounting only the amount of equity held in the entity is reported in the consolidated financial statements.

The term 'at-equity' has now become as firmly entrenched in German (in finance departments) as the word 'Handy' for a mobile phone or cell phone. It is not wrong per se in German because it has undoubtedly become the established term for describing investments that are accounted for using the equity method. However, it is not correct English usage.

Unfortunately, 'at-equity' is now found countless times in the English versions of German companies' annual reports. If you Google "at-equity investments" you will return a lot of authentic-looking English hits. But look closer and all is not what it seems. Almost every hit hails from a German source. We have ourselves espoused the merits of Google for translation research (see LingServe's top five translation tools) but it is important to remember that a tool is only as good as the craftsman who is using it.

So how do you correctly render the term 'at-equity' in English? The correct formulation in English is 'investments accounted for using the equity method' or, where space or style dictate, the short form 'equity-accounted investments'.

Theme on! (27.02.2015)

One of the trickiest words for the German to English translator to deal with is Thema. On the face of it, the English equivalent seems fairly straightforward - theme, or, in certain contexts, topic or subject. And in many cases those translations work. But not in all. In fact, Thema can mean almost anything in German.

The synonyms provided by Duden hint at its broad scope of potential meaning:

Angelegenheit, Aufgabe, Aufgabenstellung, Betreff, Frage[stellung], Gegenstand, Objekt, Problem, Problematik, Problemstellung, Punkt, Sache, Stoff, Thematik, Themenstellung; (bildungssprachlich) Materie, Sujet

Often it's clear from the context what's meant; sometimes, however, it's clear only in the author's mind. This is when you need to seek clarification. After recently quizzing a customer on the precise meaning of Themen in the text fragment Spezielle Themen bzgl. anstehender Veranstaltung, we were told that it meant Weitere zu berücksichtigende Punkte (additional points that need to be taken into consideration). We had suspected as much, but that's only because we have the requisite experience and intuition to draw on. And we had access to the author in order to be able to clarify the meaning. Pity the poor translator without such resources.

Other potential translations for Thema include 'issue' (watch out though, this has negative connotations in English), 'talking point' and 'item', but the possibilities really are endless.

English also has its words that cover a multitude of sins. A particular mot du jour is process. A buzzword of the seventies, it is now becoming a synonym for all manner of words where another, often more appropriate term exists. In the popular BBC series The Apprentice, for example, the interviews and activities undertaken by the candidates are almost always collectively referred to as 'the process'. Perhaps the feeling is that the word adds a professional, business-like sheen to what is really no more than a reality TV show.

Language changes over time, that much is clear. Some words broaden their scope of meaning. Others become narrower in definition. Translators have little choice but to be descriptivist in their approach, objectively observing how words evolve over time so that when the strict definition is deviated from, they can accurately reflect the intended meaning.

Let him have it! (01.12.2014)

On the evening of 2 November 1952 Police Constable Sidney Miles was shot dead after confronting two armed robbers. Derek Bentley, who was later sent to the gallows for the murder of the policeman, was not the man who pulled the trigger, but the man who uttered the fateful words "Let him have it", upon which his accomplice fired his gun. The conviction hinged on the interpretation of the words "Let him have it". The defence contended that he meant that his accomplice should hand over the gun to the policeman, the prosecution that it was an incitement to murder.

As translators, we are forever preaching the importance of context for correct translation, but this case illustrates something even deeper. Sometimes you actually need to know what was in the mind of the author (or in this case the speaker) in order to be able to accurately convey the meaning of a phrase. In this particular case, only the defendant himself truly knows whether he wanted his accomplice to shoot the policeman or to let him have the gun. You might say that it shouldn't matter to the translator and s/he should simply convey the same level of ambiguity in the target language. Unfortunately, that's not the way language works and it is extremely rare that there will be a corresponding phrase with precisely the same ambiguity of meaning. When we talk about things being 'lost in translation', intentional ambiguity - along with linguistic wordplay and cultural references - is one of those things that may inevitably fall by the wayside.

The Derek Bentley case also demonstrates the importance of background knowledge and familiarity with the 'business' of the customer. If, say, LingServe had translated the minutes of the meeting at which the robbery had been planned - and the strategy to adopt in the event of confrontation by the police had been discussed at that meeting - we would be in a much better position to interpret the precise meaning of the words "Let him have it".

LingServe's top five translation tools (14.11.2014)

Lifehacker recently published an article announcing their readers' five favourite translation tools: http://lifehacker.com/five-best-language-translation-tools-1634228212. Happily they included a trained human translator alongside the useful but limited online apps such as Google Translate.

It's always fun reading how others view translation, and it's inspired us to compile our very own top five from the translator's perspective.

1. Google and Google Images

What better way could there be to get away from the words on the page (lesson no. 1 for a translator) and to concentrate on the meaning and the message than by using pictures? What do people see in their mind's eye when they read or hear a noun, phrase or adjective? Put it into Google Images and you'll get a pretty good idea. A good example is Messe, which is often translated as 'fair' - a potentially misleading word if not preceded by 'trade' or 'consumer'. Compare Messe and 'fair' in Google Images to see why.

You can also use Google Images as a kind of 'say what you see' resource that calls on you to use your powers of description. A picture search for Lebensfreude produced results that inspired our English translation of 'happy smiling faces' - a free rendering of the German word but one that we think really captures the message when used in the right context. 

And Google itself is a fabulous tool for the translator, especially when you know some of its more ingenious search functions. We haven't got room to list them all, but here are a few that we find enormously helpful.

Restricted searches

Put your search terms in quotes, and it tells Google to search for the whole phrase instead of the individual words.

Site searches

Use the formula below to search a particular site for a particular word or set of words, e.g.:

translation site:www.lingserve.co.uk

Wildcard searches (a big LingServe favourite)

Combined with the restricted search, the wildcard is great for finding the right word to use in a particular context. Say, for example, you Googled "The strategy has been * in order to". The results returned to you show that 'developed'/ 'designed' and 'produced' are potential verbs to use in this context.

2. Duden

A monolingual language resource may not seem the most obvious pick but it's surprising how often looking up the meaning of a word can help you find the most appropriate translation. Duden's website (and its paper dictionaries too) give you the definition of a word alongside information such as synonyms and etymology.


dict.cc is one of the sometimes maligned but still very popular first generation of online multilingual dictionaries. Still strongest in its original German-English language pairing, dict.cc boasts lots of entries but not much in the way of context. It can be dangerous in the wrong hands [see also: Wörterbücher in den falschen Händen], but has its uses even for experienced translators. Though dict.cc, Leo and the like are generally not very helpful for specialist terminology, when it comes to more everyday terms, they can often help you to find just the right word you are looking for.

4. A thesaurus

Most of us here at LingServe have a favourite thesaurus website bookmarked in our browsers. For translators and indeed for anyone who writes for a living, a thesaurus is an essential tool for finding the word on the tip of your tongue. Looking through a list of synonyms often leads you to a more appropriate word for your translation than perhaps the more obvious choice. After all, when it comes to finding le mot juste, a miss is as good as a mile.

5. Paper dictionaries

Call us romantics but there's nothing quite like the feeling you get from thumbing through a dictionary, enjoying the feel of the paper in your hand and taking the opportunity to get away from the screen. Although most of our research is now done online, we still have a bookcase crammed with dictionaries that provide invaluable assistance in more specialised fields. Often we find that the narrower the lexicon's focus, the more helpful it is.

My kingdom for a Duden! (28-08-2014)

By Richard North

The other day, I had cause to look up the definition of a German word on the Duden website and came across an advert for their Sprachberatung service, a kind of hotline for questions about language usage. Struggling with your Konjunktiv II? Want to know whether you really write three fs in Schifffahrtsgesellschaft? Not au fait with the Neue Rechtschreibung. A simple phone call is apparently all it takes.

This got me thinking about how useful it would be to have a similar service for English. Authoritative sources do exist - Oxford, Collins, Merriam-Webster - but none can claim to even come close to having the oracle-like status of Duden in the German-speaking countries. For the English speaker, it's a case of picking one source and sticking with it. The array of conflicting advice out there is simply bewildering. Read the following entry from Daily Writing Tips, one of our favourite blogs, to get an idea of just how conflicting the advice they provide can be:


So what is a poor translation company to do? Well, like most other organisations whose bread and butter is the English written word, we have no other option but to maintain our own inhouse style guide. To do this, we draw on the advice of style books, writing manuals and dictionaries, and we use our own best judgement. The LingServe style guide has been honed over the years to cover a huge range of style aspects and focuses on the use of English in translations from German. It's continually updated to enable us to better serve our customers and is flexible enough to allow for client-specific exceptions.

And while we're on the subject, have you ever noticed that German publications don't generally have inhouse style guides? It's because they don't need one. Duden can answer all their questions. There's not even a recognised German equivalent for the term.

To view the LingServe style guide, click here.

Congratulations Germany! (14.07.2014)

Germany are football world champions once again. The Nationalmannschaft beat Argentina 1-0 in the final thanks to a fantastic extra-time goal from super-sub Mario Götze.

And, of course, the triumph for Joachim Löw's team also means that we now have our winners in the LingServe sweepstake. First prize (Germany) and the runner-up prize (Argentina) both went to members of LingServe's pool of freelance translators. The consolation prize for the worst team at the tournament (Cameroon) went to the charity Cancer Research UK.

Teamwork is crucial to the success of any organisation. As a recent internet viral pointed out: Portugal have Ronaldo, Argentina have Messi, Brazil have Neymar, Germany have a team. Here at LingServe, we like to think of ourselves as a team as well, pooling the strengths of individuals to produce something that is greater than the sum of its parts. We do this through our process of double checking, through our shared terminology resources and through cross-pollination.

During the World Cup, we launched an inhouse forum dedicated to translation, terminology and points of style. This is another addition to the toolbox that allows us to function even better as a team and to deliver even better service to our customers.

When is a Tippspiel a sweepstake? (18.06.2014)

Every four years World Cup fever grips the land – both in Germany and England. In factories and offices across England, people organise their ‘World Cup sweepstake’, and their equivalents in Germany run their ‘WM-Tippspiel’. So Tippspiel equals sweepstake? Well, that depends ...

In the UK, a sweepstake is a very specific form of game in which every player pays a stake and buys or is allocated a team or teams (or horse/horses in a racing sweepstake). Whoever’s team or horse wins gets all the money. There are minor variations, but that’s the fundamental principle – the stakes are ‘swept up’ by the winner. A Tippspiel can be organised along similar lines, but generally that’s not the case. It usually involves more detail – predicting individual match results and scores – and may or may not involve a financial stake from players.

English doesn’t have an exact equivalent for Tippspiel and German doesn’t have one for the British sweepstake. Because Tippspiel is a more generic term, it would be a perfectly valid translation for ‘sweepstake’, but not vice-versa, unless you know for sure that the Tippspiel is organised in the form of a sweepstake. As so often with translation, context is all important.

LingServe favours the English format and organises a sweepstake for every football World Cup and European Championships. This year, all players got to draw one of the 16 highest rated teams and one of the 16 lowest rated teams. We also reserve two teams for charity, and this year that was tournament favourites Brazil and outsiders Cameroon.

Maybe next time we’ll make it a Tippspiel, just for a change.


Bitte einfach mal drüber schauen (30.04.2014)

It is becoming increasingly common for our German customers to ask us to revise texts that they have composed in English ("bitte einfach mal drüber schauen" / "die schlimmsten Fehler ausräumen") – often in the belief that this will save time and money. However, this belief is based on a fundamental misunderstanding/misconception of how the translation process works.

In reality it can take longer to revise an English text written by a non-native speaker than it does to translate a text that has been written well in the author's own language. More importantly, the end result is usually of poorer quality.

To deliver a high-quality end product, the translator needs to fully understand every meaning and nuance that the author is attempting to convey to the reader. The process is the same regardless of whether the translator is working from one language into another or revising in the same language: a semantic unit (which generally means a sentence) is read and digested, and then reproduced in the translator's own words. What makes this task easier or harder for the translator is the clarity with which the ideas are expressed.

No matter how good their foreign language skills, few people are able to convey their thoughts and ideas in a foreign language as precisely and coherently as they can in their own native language. Attempting to do so will invariably take up more of the author's time and have a negative impact on the end product. After all, the quality of any translation is inevitably influenced by the quality of the source text.

Revising a request to revise an English text can place us in the uncomfortable position of

a) not wishing to offend people with the truth about the quality of their written English and

b) having to dash their expectation that it will save them money to have their English revised rather than having a German text translated from scratch.

Are raccoons always clean?! (14.01.2014)

It’s a perfectly logical question, really. That is, assuming you’re under the age of ten and German is your mother tongue. That’s because the procyon lotor, or raccoon to give it its common name, is known as a Waschbär in German. This translates literally as ‘wash bear’ or ‘washing bear’ – so called, because the animals are often seen examining their food underwater before eating it, giving the appearance of washing the food.

In a recent marketing text for a German zoo, we were tasked with translating the seemingly simple question “Sind Waschbären immer sauber?” (Are raccoons always clean?). You don’t have to be an expert in zoology to realise that a literal translation is not the answer for this particular text. Paraphrasing would make the question too long and lose its playful tone. Instead, some sort of creative substitution is called for, ideally something that retains this childlike form of expression in English.

When it comes to a translation conundrum like this one, LingServe has the X factor. As a single team of translators working under one roof, we can put our heads together and brainstorm for the optimum solution. One idea sparks another and the suggestions start to pile up. Perhaps a similarly innocent question would work, such as “How did the zebra get its stripes?” Better yet, take an animal that has an equally descriptive name in English. Maybe elephant seals, bottlenose dolphins or hammerhead sharks…? In the end, the solution came in an animal that, like the Waschbär, has a rather misleading name: the Komodo dragon. The resulting translation … “Do Komodo dragons breathe fire?”

The best part of working as a team (27.09.2013)

This blog entry is by Richard North

Everything we translate at LingServe is checked by a fellow member of staff. The main purpose is, of course, to correct any minor errors and to ensure the translator has understood the German correctly and produced a piece of coherent, well-written English that adequately reflects the source text in terms of style, register and form. But for the checker, and for LingServe and its customers, there is another, less obvious benefit. When reviewing someone else’s work, you are exposed not only to different approaches to tricky translation problems but also imaginative solutions for seemingly straighforward words.

A case in point: Recently, I was checking the work of a colleague who had translated the German word ‘fast’ in a sentence beginning ‘Seit fast 1.000 Jahren wird…’ with ‘the best part of’. In this instance: ‘For the best part of a thousand years …’. I had never come across this before, and it was nice to see a change from the usual suspects ‘almost’ and ‘nearly’. I liked it so much that I used it myself a couple of days later in a translation of my own. Perhaps the person who checked that piece of work will add ‘the best part of’ to their translation toolbox, if it isn’t already there. This process of continuous improvement and evolution is what I like to call the LingServe hive mind.

Exposure to different people’s work is one of the key advantages that we have over freelance translators. It helps us to keep our translations fresh and fosters the natural evolution of a shared but distinctive 'LingServe' style of writing.

[Postscript 16.01.2014: Today, I came across the following from our internal 'Translation and style' guide that neatly ties in with this blog, in particular the reference to cross-fertilisation. Richard]

"In addition to the obvious quality assurance aspect, checking serves a variety of other purposes

Good things come to those who wait (24.06.2013)

When it comes to translation, there is an inevitable trade-off between time and quality. Any translation company which tells you anything different is being very economical with the truth.

Why does every football manager coach his players to pressure the other team and not to give them any time on the ball? Simple. If you put people under pressure, they make mistakes. And translators are no different to footballers or anyone else in this respect.

When time is of the essence for a customer, we will of course pull out all the stops in order to meet their deadline, working to the highest possible standard within the available time. There are a number of ways to achieve this: simply working more quickly, being a little less assiduous about background research, splitting a job between several translators, giving the translation to someone less familiar with the customer/subject area, putting in a late shift – none of which is conducive to high-quality translation and therefore preferably avoided.

We are a group of experienced translators at LingServe who work together as a team and are able to react quickly and flexibily to accommodate the needs of customers. We fully understand that circumstances sometimes unavoidably conspire to create tight deadlines. However, it is generally the case that the more time we are given to complete a translation, the better the end result.

Why the world still needs translators (13.05.2013)

I often find it surprising how little non-linguists actually know about the process of translation. While talking to someone at a recent social event, I was asked a question that I’m sure all translators have heard before: “Isn’t Google Translate going to make you redundant?” The short answer is “Only if you translate like a machine.”

Machine translation certainly has its uses, primarily for getting the gist of a text where there is no particular need (or budget) for a professional translation. But if you want a translation that ticks all the same boxes as the source text in terms of its ability to engage the reader through the use of fluent, compelling and idiomatic language and you want to be sure that the nuances of the source language are conveyed as accurately as possible in the target language, machine translation simply doesn’t cut it. To illustrate this point, I have taken a couple of passages of text from documents we are currently working on so as to compare the Google Translate output with our own human output:

Source text:

Mitten in der Diskussion um die Ausweitung des Euro-Schutzschirms im Sommer 2012 sorgte Irland für Aufsehen am Anleihemarkt: Nach der Abwertung auf Ramschniveau 2010 platzierte der Inselstaat langfristige Anleihen am Markt – und zählt im Staatenvergleich inzwischen zu den Top-Performern.

Google (machine) translation:

In the middle of the discussion about the expansion of the euro-protection peak in summer 2012 made ​​Ireland a stir in the bond market: After the devaluation to junk 2010, the island nation placed long-term bonds on the market - and one in the States compared now to the top performers.

Ignoring the fact that there are a couple of outright mis-translations, the machine translation does give you some idea what the source text is about and a rough gist of the meaning. If that’s all you need, fine. This passage of text, however, is from the annual report of a major German fund management company. The text has to engage the reader and convey the image of a professional, reliable and well-run company, as we have attempted to do in our translation:

LingServe (human) translation:

Amid all the discussions about enlarging the euro bailout fund, Ireland caused a sensation in the bond market in the summer of 2012. Having been downgraded to junk status in 2010, the Emerald Isle placed long-term bonds on the market and is now one of the top performing countries.

Even with the latest advances in statistical methodologies, machine translation is unable to adequately draw on context and background knowledge, carry out research or apply judgement. Another example by way of illustration:

Source text:

Eine Doppelwerft mit den Standorten Wismar und Rostock-Warnemünde soll eines der innovativsten Unternehmen Deutschlands sein. Wie bitte? Wirklich? So fällt bei vielen die erste Reaktion aus.

Google (machine) translation:

A double yard with locations Wismar and Rostock-Warnemünde is supposed to be one of the most innovative companies in Germany. What? Really? How many drops from the first reaction.

Leaving aside the ‘how many drops’ howler, the machine translation renders the original reasonably accurately. But that misses the point here. Most international readers will be unaware of the location of Wismar and Rostock-Warnemünde and merely confused by the reaction supposedly elicited in the German reader. This is where the translator has to apply some human judgement to provide copy that fulfils the purpose of the source text rather than just replicating it word for word.

LingServe (human) translation:

With two shipyards – one in Wismar and the other in Rostock-Warnemünde – Nordic Yards is one of Germany's most innovative companies.  Many are surprised to find such a company in this remote part of eastern Germany.

The intention of both of these companies in their respective documents is to project a particular image of their company and the products or services they provide. Will they ever be able to replace human translators with a machine for this task? I, for one, am not losing any sleep over this question… 

Wörterbücher in den falschen Händen (27.04.2012)

Wörterbücher – sowohl in elektronischer Form wie als Druckwerk – sind als Werkzeug aus dem Arbeitsalltag des Übersetzers nicht mehr wegzudenken.

Aber wenn Laien Wörter einfach blind aus einem Wörterbuch übernehmen, können sie dadurch unbewusst großen linguistischen Schaden anrichten. Nur weil etwas im Wörterbuch steht, heißt schon lange nicht, dass es im jeweiligen Zusammenhang passt und im Kopf des Lesers die gewünschten Assoziationen hervorruft. Oftmals findet man die passende Übersetzung im Wörterbuch gar nicht, und die Übersetzungen, die man findet, sind häufig ungeeignet.

Die korrekte Wortwahl – ggfs. mit Hilfe eines Wörterbuchs – setzt entsprechende Fachkenntnisse und das Fingerspitzengefühl eines Muttersprachlers der Zielsprache voraus.