A little anthology of iffy translations

When you’ve been a professional translator for a while, you get used to certain errors cropping up again and again. The kind where you think: “Good try, but…no”. Here’s a small selection of German-to-English translation bloopers I’ve seen in the last 8 years.


1. Konkrete Lösungen – concrete solutions

Konkrete Lösungen”, “konkrete Ideen”, “Gibt es schon irgendwas Konkretes?” – German speakers are always talking about things being “konkret”.

What they mean is that something is clear or certain. Many translators instinctively grab for the most obvious option in English, which is of course “concrete”. This is correct English, as confirmed by this entry in the online Cambridge Dictionary. The phrase is also used in English language versions of EU documents, like this press statement from the European Council.

HOWEVER:  I am no friend of this translation. I think it is sloppy and lazy – and vaguely comical. For me, “concrete solutions” are something that you would encounter in the construction industry.

A much better choice is “specific”. As applied to the examples in the first sentence: “specific solutions”, “specific ideas”, “Is there already something specific?”

Tidy, clear, elegant…and nothing to do with a building site.

2. Sogenannt so-called

This word gets sprayed around in German texts like it’s going out of fashion. Its purpose is simple: to signify that something has a name/designation and, well…this is it!

For example:

Einkorn ist ein sogenanntes Urgetreide aus der Ahnenreihe des Weizens“.

Be careful with that translation: the direct transfer of “sogenannt” into an English translation is often the sign of an unthinking, careless translator.

Why? Because when English-speakers (or at least speakers of British English) use this word, it comes laden with a good dollop of sarcasm. It indicates that the writer/speaker does not take the “so-called” thing seriously.

The use of “sogenannt” by German native speakers rarely has this kind of scornful undercurrent. It would be wrong to create that kind of tone in the English text when it did not exist in the source. By reflexively adding a “so-called” to the translation, you could even end up undermining the meaning of the source text. Which, as a good translator, is something you’ll want to avoid.

Therefore, if I see “sogenannt” in a source text and it isn’t meant in a sarcastic way, then I either leave the word out of the English translation or insert a nice neutral “called…”, “known as”, or “referred to as…”.

The above sentence may therefore be translated as:

“Einkorn is an ancient grain which belongs to the wheat family”.

The translated sentence does not suffer at all from having dropped the “sogenannt“. That was a quick decision. I was far more preoccupied with what to call an “Urgetreide” and an “Ahnenreihe” in English…

3. Ehefähig – marriageable

Both in Austria and Germany, if you want to get married, you have to prove that you are “ehefähig“. In essence, the spouses-to-be are “ehefähig” if, in the eyes of the law, they are capable of marrying. In Austria, that means being of age (i.e. 18+) and being capable of making decisions for oneself.

And there’s a whole raft of other, related words: Ehefähigkeit, Ehefähigkeitszeugnis, Ehefähigkeitserklärung…some of the least romantic words in the whole of the German language are saved up for your pre-wedding round of bureaucracy. It is my personal belief that this is how the authorities test whether you’re really serious about the marriage thing. If you manage to get through all this bone-dry legalese and still look at your partner with stars in your eyes – you’re in it to win it. Off with you to the altar – and don’t spare the horses!

But I digress.

I recently saw “ehefähig” translated as “marriageable”.

While the word “marriageable” may refer to someone’s capacity to marry in the eyes of the law, this translation was still poorly thought through.

Why? The word “marriageable” also has other connotations. A person may be said to be “marriageable” if they display qualities which make them attractive as a mate and a spouse (e.g. wealth, a good job, a good family background). It is about someone’s general desirability on the marriage market rather than a legal requirement.

It is a rather old-fashioned turn of phrase – redolent of Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice standing at the edge of the ballroom in Merriton, shrewdly sizing up Mr. Bingley and bellowing “My dear! Don’t you know that he has FIVE THOUSAND A YEAR?”

While Pride and Prejudice is a wonderful novel and Mr. Bingley, Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth and Jane were all eminently marriageable – when you’re translating “ehefähig“, it’s time to ditch the romance and take the road of clarity. The term “capacity to marry” is my solution. It is clean, clear – and solidly indicative of a legal requirement.

What more do you want?

4. Abtretung/Zession – transfer (of rights)

Both under German and Austrian law, “Abtretung” or “Zession” means the mechanism whereby a claim under the law of obligations (“Schuldrecht“) is transferred from one creditor to another. Such claims can be things like the rights to the repayment of a loan or the right to payment of a purchase price. The creditor in the transaction changes, while the debtor stays the same. It does not apply to rights in rem (“dingliche Rechte”), which are covered by the property law (“Sachenrecht”) chapters of both the German and Austrian civil codes (BGB, ABGB). Nor does it apply to certain, highly personalised rights in the field of family law.

Another key aspect of the nature of “Abtretung” is that it only transfers rights, not obligations. And that’s the key to the translation of the word.

I’ve so often seen it translated as “transfer (of rights)“. And while that’s not entirely wide of the mark, it lacks precision. It is much better to apply the term “assignment”. Under English law, assigment means the “transfer of a right or benefit” under a contract, but not the “burden” (i.e. the duties/obligations).

It’s a match!

More blog articles from Spezialis Translations:

My legal translation nemeses: the German words I love to hate

Functional equivalence in legal translation

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