Mysterious German Translations

December 25, 2019

I have been doing an intensive deep dive into German, and one of the hardest parts of thinking in a new language, is getting used to different language constructs. For example something that you might express as a noun in English but it is usually expressed via a verb in German.

It is for this very reason that automated translators in the past tended to suck so much, and why DeepL is so great. Translating a language is not only about translating words by dictionary lookup, but rather sometimes rephrasing it completely to reflect the most natural way a native speaker would express that.

In order to document that I started making notes while I watched American TV dubbed into German and with English Closed-Captions (🤯, suggestion from Dana Newman).

When German is oddly more specific than English

I have noticed that the translator usually wants to be more specific than the original English.

For example, from Und täglich grüßt das Murmeltier, 00:01:01:

Original 🇺🇸 Dubbed 🇩🇪
Someone asked me today, Phill,
if you could be anywhere in the world
, where would you like to be?
And I said to him, Und ich habe geantwortet, …
Probably right here,
in Elko, Nevada.
Our nation’s high at 79 today.

German has a sagen verb that works just fine, but I observed over and over again that the translator consciously chooses a more specific option. In this regard, it pays off a lot to use a German dubbed audio instead of say, watching it in English with German subtitles to practice your German. In German subtitles meant to be used with English audio, they tend to follow the original more closely. Maybe the subtitler knows that the listener already knows some English and feels less compelled to adapt the original track. For example for this very bit, the German subtitle is: Ich sagte: ….

Another example of the same phenomenon in the wild, from the best-selling book Heaven Adjacent by Catherine Ryan Hyde:

  • 🇩🇪»Also, Sie wissen schon«, erwiderte er. »Es wird geredet.«

  • 🇺🇸“Well, you know”, he said. “Word gets around”.

The poor narrator in the original English again just used the verb to say. Yet again, the German translator, feeling that zu sagen is not worthy of use in this case, upgraded it to erwidern, which is more close to to reply or to reciprocate, and so fuller in meaning than a simple he said. And this is just not a hand-picked example. All over the book I keep seeing this pattern and erwidern popping up where the original English verb was simpler.

If I had observed this in only one book or particular translator I could say it was just a case of an overzealous translator trying to upgrade the writing style of the original author, but this is a pattern that happens again and again in multiple media and by multiple translators, so it has to point to a deeper entrenched phenomenon.

Maybe it’s a deeply ingrained characteristic of the language. Maybe it’s just the way it comes more naturally to someone who is thinking in German. Who knows. If you have any idea please enlighten me.

Written by @rudbektango who lives in the outer rim of the galaxy. You should follow him on Twitter