Sunday, January 23, 2011

Lost in Translation

This was too good to pass up...

I recently returned to Germany from a 10-day trip to the United States.  When I got to the airport in Frankfurt for my flight across the Atlantic, I switched from German to speaking English, and I found this freeing.  My German is sufficient but not proficient; I especially understand more of what I read and hear than I can express fluently.  For the duration of my trip to the East Coast, I didn’t have to think about what I wanted say before I opened my mouth: whether I knew all the words I wanted to use, had them in the right order, or needed to beat around the bush to get my point across.  Sometimes I don’t say anything at all in German, if I don’t know the right phrase.  As a historian, I work with words, and I am used being able to say what I want to say, how I want to say it.  Living in a foreign country has been a linguistically humbling experience.  In recognition of this, I offer an entry about how sometimes meaning can be lost, even after translation.

My reading German is pretty good, but I still use a dictionary, usually LingoPad, which I downloaded onto my laptop before I came over.  Sometimes I recognize a word but can’t remember its definition.  Sometimes I come across completely new German words for me.  And sometimes I need help puzzling out something hand-written, so I start entering letters into the search box to see what the likely possibilites are for some chicken scratch of a word.  (This dictionary only searches vorwärts, or forward, which can make finding words tricky if I can read the prefix and suffix, but not what comes in between.)  It has other quirks, too.  For instance, there seems to be an entire bird watcher’s guide book of ornithological names.  And then sometimes even my English fails me, because this is a translation dictionary and not a definition dictionary.  So for instance, the entry for überschüttete is “to whelm.”  …?

When this happens I have to wait until I get home at the end of my day at the archive and use Miriam-Webster’s online dictionary to figure out what’s being talked about.  Here are some of the more interesting, amusing, or just plain confusing translations LingoPad has offered me.  

Pasch = doublets? snakes eyes? all fours?  boxcars?
Drachenschlucht = dragon ravine?
das Grummet = foggage, or after-grass (?)   
Schleie = tench (that's a kind of fish, if you're wondering)
Pfändungen = seizure distraints?
Teichmönch = pond monk??  actually, it's a convex tile
inkommodiere = incommode  well, yeas...
Schiebungen = wangles? wth? ...turns out it means "profiteering"
Rummel = shivaree (later I found out this is a hype or shindig, hype, shivaree)

Of course you have to watch out for cognates: Giebel = gable, Gabel = fork.  Zapfen are most commonly pine cones, but apparently the word also means gudgeon, spigot, trunnion, tenon, peg, and stud!

And then there are entries like the following.  I’m looking up the saying, “Lügen haben kurze Beine.” (Lies have short legs, or The truth will get out.)  I type “Beine” into the search box and scroll down.  Second to last is the sentence “Man kann sich die Beine abfrieren vor Kälte,” which translates more or less literally to „It’s cold enough to freeze one's legs off.“  Rather than offer something tame like that, however, LingoPad offers this gem: “It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.”  I’m sure I’ve heard that before, but it was so unexpected that I nearly snorted out loud, there in the middle of the Main Saxon Archive.  Meanwhile, outside, it was cold enough to….well, you know.

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