Archive for Juli 2009

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-Moritz und Céline

Another day, another Translation Corner – this time, we have two requests!

Jenny asks:

Hey Moritz,

This isn’t so much a translation request as a query, but I’m hoping you’ll be able to assist me all the same!

Many years ago when I was learning Deutsch in high school, my teacher, Frau Schwarz, was very picky about one particular thing- the translation of names.

When my peers and I called her Mrs Black on several occasions, she became quite agitated, and repeatedly insisted: ‘That’s not my name! I’m Frau Schwarz!’ (This proved to be an unwise decision on her part- we exploited her weakness and called her Mrs Black for the better part of two years.)

Was her reaction just an idiosynchrasy, or is the translation of names (ie. don’t) widespread between German and English, and indeed between other languages?

I’d be interested to know.


Well, to understand the problem, we first have to look at the history of names first (only briefly, do not worry). Names are usually linked to places, professions, people, or certain traits of character – if we look at a list of the most common surnames in the US and their etymological history, we can see the pattern right there: Smith (blacksmith), Johnson („son of John“, goes back to more religious times), Williams (from the French Willaume, from willio „will“ + helma „helmet“) , Brown (a person with darker compexion / brown hair), Jones (also „son of John“).

Now, German surnames have often been anglizised (most notably, many German immigrants chose to anglizise their names during the WWII era to distance themselves from the Nazi regime), but as names go, people tend to favor one version over the other. Sure, the word Schwarz means black in English, but to many the additional meaning to their name (besides being their name, that is) is most often not all that apparent. My last name is Vogel, which means bird in English – however, I would not expect anyone to call me Mr. Bird when in the US (in fact, there are quite a few Vogel’s in the US). The same probably holds true for your old teacher – for her, her name wasn’t just some word that can be translated, but rather part of her identity.

So, long story short – whilst as a teacher that taught German abroad, she should have been comfortable enough with her students translating her name on the fly, it is understandable that she would prefer the original form of her name. That being said, it is not unusual to translate names between two languages.

Valerie inquires:

Dearest Moritz, and World of Text associates;

I find myself in a terrible conundrum.

Not knowing German myself, the meaning of these phrases are unfortunately out of my grasp. I’m currently reading a thesis with many German references, and I find I lose track of what the author is talking about.

One phrase is as follows:
“Das Leben ist wie ein Kinderhemd–kurz und beschissen.”

And there is also the ambiguity of a second phrase that befuddles me:
“ein Tropfen auf den heissen Stein”

What do they mean?
What are their origins?

Help me Moritz one Kenobe, you’re my only hope.

Thanks in advance,

First off, great last name. To dive right in –

Das Leben ist wie ein Kinderhemd – kurz und beschissen

Das Leben ist… is basically a beginning for all kinds of phrases, similarly to Life is… – you prepare to make a general statement about something. wie ein Kinderhemdlike a kid’s shirt would be the closest translation – this is the build-up for the metaphorical punchline. kurz und beschissen – depending on the context, this could mean short and crappy, or any worse synonym for the word crappy you can think of. As you can see, the whole phrae rests on the fact that you can attribute negative things on a rather neutral term such as Kinderhemd – people expect you to make a general statement, you open with Kinderhemd, and then surprise everyone with a cynical statement that even uses somewhat offensive language.

ein Tropfen auf dem heißen Stein

Simply put – it means that whatever you did, it was not enough or helped only a bit. The phrase refers to something before that, for instance you could have said „Das Bier war auch nur ein Tropfen auf dem heißen Stein.“ which means although the beer helped, it wasn’t enough to quench your thirst (and since you were talking about beverages and said „Tropfen“, you also punned in German!). A similar phrase in English exists – a drop in the bucket. About its origins, all I can say that it probably was created during the Dark Ages, but since I don’t have my etymological dictionary with me right now (and the internet is a place full of wrong information), I can’t go into further detail – I hope I helped you, though 🙂


Hey Folks!

Fips recently asked me this:

Here’s another one I was thinking of the other day, though this time from English. The phrase is “for someone’s own good”, or “zu jmds. Besten” as I’ve been reliably informed. But in English it can also be used in a negative context, such as “He’s too tall for his own good”. How would you tackle that expression?

The phrase „for someone’s own good“ is just that, a fixed phrase with two meanings. The corresponding translation Fips provided is correct for the positive meaning, but one has to know that the phrase is not as firmly established in German – you could say „Es ist zu seinem Besten“ in quite a few different ways. For instance „Es ist in seinem Interesse“ or „Ihm zugute“.

The ’negative‘ meaning has it’s own translation in German – you could try to put a sarcastic undertone to the German positive translation, but then you’d either sound like a villian, or only people that know where you got the phrase from would get it.

To go with the original example, a passable translation for „he’s too tall for his own good“ would be anything that expresses the initial statement (-> „He’s too tall“) with an addendum that implies that he is almost too tall – we can do that in quite a few ways, for instance we can put a humorous spin on it (which in English would be done with the intonation due to the fixed phrase) – „Er ist so groß, er könnte aus der Dachrinne saufen“ (literally: „He’s so tall he could drink from the gutter“). Humorous similes like that are common in German, and sometimes even the joking undertone is removed to really state the fact.

Other than that, we can only use the actual statement, „He’s almost too tall“, to convey the meaning without losing anything – there are other phrases you can alter to have an approximate phrase, but it does not fit the English original a 100 percent. Therefore, my ideal translation would be „Er ist schon fast zu groß.“


P.S.: if you have more interesting translations, from English to German, from German to English, or from French into any of the other two, just ask!


Aujourd’hui, en cette belle journée du mardi 14 juillet 2009, nombreux sont les français qui ne travaillent pas et qui ont regardé ce matin le beau défilé de l’armée française sur les champs élysées, dont les troupes, passées en revue par M. Nicolas Sarkozy, ont marché fièrement au son de la musique militaire. Nombreux seront également les français à sortir ce soir, gilet sur les épaules, pour regarder le superbe (ou non) feux d’artifice préparé par la commune. Bref, vous l’aurez deviné, ce jour n’est pas un jour comme les autres puisqu’en ce mardi 14 juillet 2009, nous fêtons, en France ou ailleurs, la fête nationale française.

Concernant ce jour, mes souvenirs de jeunesse restent très présent : mes parents, exceptionellement à la maison en ce jour chômé, qui me disent de trier mes affaires de classe de l’année qui vient de s’écouler ( je tiens à rappeler que les écoliers français finissent en général l’année fin juin – début juillet) alors que moi, voulant profiter de mes débuts de vacances, je souhaitais trainer toute la journée, soit dehors, soit au frais sur le canapé avec une glace, en regardant le tour de France.

J’ai aussi le souvenir que les feux d’artifice, que je pouvais observer de chez moi debout sur une chaise, étaient l’occasion de comparer celui de mon village à ceux des alentours et ainsi de déterminer si cela avait fait partie des priorités financières de ma commune, tout comme on peut comparer les décorations de noël avant le 25 décembre en traversant les différents villages. Bref, même si je relate ceci avec un peu de sarcasme, ce jour là restait l’occasion de passer du temps avec ma famille en un beau jour d’été où l’on commémore non pas l’épisode sanglant du 14 juillet 1789, comme on pourrait le penser, mais la fête de la fédération du 14 juillet 1790.


Liens :

Another day another word to translate! This time, it would be the German word „Impressum“. For those not in the know, an Impressum is the little text at the end of a newspaper or magazine in which the editor, editor-in-chief, etc make their legal statements, date of publishing, place of printing, etc – however, an Impressum can be much more, and differs from medium to medium.

The word Impressum comes from Latin and means „to imprint“ – the „Impressumspflicht“ law differs from Bundesland to Bundesland, and from media to media. For instance, in books you have the Impressum on the early pages, and it looks decidedly different from the one you would find in a newspaper, for instance.

What has that to do with translation? Well, there is no perfect translation for Impressum, so depending on the media the Impressum is in, you’d have to choose between several different combinations. Legal information, legal notice, imprint, masthead, etc – for an internet Impressum (which is largely a collection of copy & paste „I don’t vouch for the content of any links on my site“ legal texts), I’d choose legal information, which would be utterly wrong for a book ( imprint  might be better here).

Anyway, thank you for the word and keep on commenting so I have more translations to explain!


Kalender / Calender

Juli 2009
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