German to English translation: A chance to revel in the richness of language

by Holly Mickelson

Recently I read an article about a project by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to translate 39 of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English. The aim is to update the language and make it more accessible, to add a more multicultural spin that will ultimately create new ways for contemporary audiences to make contact with Shakespeare’s body of work. The “translators” are noted playwrights and other theater professionals.

Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro disagrees with the project’s premise, pointing out that “Shakespeare is about the intoxicating richness of language.” The risk of trying to wrestle Shakespeare’s words into the modern vernacular is the danger that something of great value will become irretrievably lost.

I have to agree. Of course contemporary language can be intoxicating too, but recognizing and affirming the charm and value in Shakespeare’s originals is just as important. A safer approach might be to borrow Shakespeare’s basic ideas and characters and create something wonderful and new and beloved. It works in Hollywood: consider West Side Story or 10 Things I Hate about You.

Holly Mickelson

Measure for Measure

At first glance, what I do for a living – that is, translating German copy into English — doesn’t really compare to “translating” Shakespeare. Most people think of translation as a process taking place between two different languages. In fact, translation can also be the conversion of something from one form or medium to another, such as research findings into a medical treatment, or images in one’s head into a poem or piece of art. Shakespeare’s English and my own are very different animals, but they are clearly related.

As are English and German, right? They’re both members of the same language group, after all. And they share a lot of history – Great Vowel Shift anyone? Some words even have a similar or identical meaning. But that’s about it. Grammar? Not the same. (See The joys of German grammar for a longer discussion of this.) Mode of expression? There are stylistic differences, sorry.

This sounds complicated, but what I’m really trying to say is this: Just as word-for-word translation won’t work for Shakespeare, it is also the wrong approach if you want a good German to English translation. Measure for measure, however, will do the trick. The copy I create should be equal to the copy I receive to translate – it should mirror the source copy’s tone, purpose, and audience while showcasing my own language’s grammar, vocabulary, and style. Still not clear? Here are just two of the key differences I encounter as a translator each day.



As You Like It

For starters, I can pretty much guarantee that my English text will be shorter than the German. Quite simply, English usually expresses the same idea in fewer words. Why? English grammar is more efficient, for starters. Just possibly, I might have more words to choose from while expressing an idea – the Oxford English Dictionary estimates more than 171,000 words are currently in use, while Germany’s leading dictionary, Duden, lists just 135,000 words – although when working in subject areas with very specialized vocabulary, this is less important.

In any case, if my version is longer, I need to go back and edit because I’m probably being too wordy. When a document has space constraints (for instance, an annual report that will be printed and bound), it’s a safe bet that the English text will take up less space. You probably won’t need to worry about accommodating more text in your PowerPoint slides, either.

Stylistically, I’ll also verb away: German is noun heavy. English reads better when it’s active, so I can turn many nouns or adjectives into verbs without changing the meaning of the original text. This serves a practical purpose as well — not only does the text sound livelier, but it also keeps the text from sounding like a translation.

That said, I still have to create copy that is faithful to the German original. But how can I create an accurate rendering if I shorten all the sentences and add active verbs? I do that by going back to the source and really making sure I understand in my mind’s eye what the copy I’m translating is supposed to do, and what message the writer was trying to convey. Only then do I stand a chance of creating an accurate translation.

Much Ado about Nothing?

As you can see, what I’m doing isn’t that different than trying to update Shakespeare. Both tasks involve understanding a message – communicated either in a different language or so long ago that it might as well be a foreign language – and making it accessible to a new audience.

To be sure, translating Shakespeare is a very difficult task. But the Bard didn’t write plays to confound people 400 years later – he wrote them to be performed and understood by people in his own day. My translations are also firmly rooted in the here and now.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if my next job is translating a press release about Earth-shattering biology research or updating world literature for a contemporary audience. In both cases, I know that the source texts themselves have value and that, if I’m lucky, the text will contain at least a glimmer of the intoxicating richness of language. It takes time to recognize and value the quirks of language, but wrestling with the details is sure to pay off in the long run when my own copy can reflect it back.

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