Translation Corner: Jedi Magic!

Posted on: 27. Juli 2009

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 🙂



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