Translation of church signs criticized/Beschilderungsübersetzung kritisiert

Aus dem Lokalteil der FAZ vom 1.9: amerikanischer Pfarrer kritisiert britische Übersetzung der Beschilderung der Alten Nikolaikirche in Frankfurt (ich habe es nur auf Papier, konnte es nicht online finden).

This is so familiar!

This article appeared in the local section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on September 1st. Theoretically it should be possible to buy it online, but I couldn’t find it.

The office for historical monuments – Denkmalamt – ordered British English translations of over 120 signs at the Alte Nikolaikirche on the Römerberg in Frankfurt am Main.

The parish priest, an American, Jeffrey Myers, wrote a letter of complaint, criticizing the German as well as the English, if I understand it right. He regretted that he and his church community had not been consulted, and said the English was rather wooden, and rather strange in parts. Getreidelager was translated as corn store (BE where wheat is stored, AmE where maize is sold). (Excellent English site of the church community).

Here is one example. I think the translator has done a really good job, whoever she was (apologies for any errors in dates, as the fax I have is not easy to read):

Alte Nikolaikirche
|Evangelische Pfarrkirche|Protestant Parish Church|

|Saalkirche um|1150|Hall church|

|Umbau zur gotischen|0|Structural alteration to|
|Hallenkirche um|1290|Gothic hall church about|

|Ergänzung von spätgotischer|1459-1467|Late Gothic roof gallery|
|Dachgalerie und|0|and tower storeys|
|Baumeister H.v.Eich||Master builder H.v.Eich|

|Profanierung und Nutzung als|1530|Profanation and use as|
|Magazin und Getreidelager|0|warehouse and corn store|

|Gotisierende|1859|Gothicized rehabilitation|
|Wiederherstellung unter|0|under|
|Stadtbaumeister|0|municipal architect|
|J.F.Christian Hess|0|J.F.Christian Hess|

|nach Kriegszerstörung|0|after wartime destruction|
|Portalplastik des|0|Portal sculpture of the|
|13. Jahrhunderts erhalten|0|13th century preserved|

Denkmalamt Frankfurt am Main

Not all translators would translate in this way. If I had been doing it, I would not have used the technically correct words profanation and rehabilitation: I would have gone for secularization and restoration. Incidentally, the OED says that rehabilitation meaning the restoration of church rights is archaic. I might even have written wheat, for the sake of any American tourists who think Frankfurt was surrounded by maizefields in 1530 – after all, they can’t help being ignorant. It’s unfortunate that the word about was not dropped by 1290: it doesn’t work unless the date is to the right of it. But it looks as if a lot of thought and work has gone into these signs. Good work by Andrea Hampel, who heads the Denkmalamt.

I know from my own experience how mean a reception translations get from people who regard a building as their life’s work, and it’s a difficult case where there is an English-speaking person, especially one who is a native speaker, attached to the church who has spent years describing it to others. These signs exist for the benefit of the public, not the local native speaker (I hasten to say that I have seen only one sign and am in no position to judge this situation except from the newspaper article).

3 thoughts on “Translation of church signs criticized/Beschilderungsübersetzung kritisiert

  1. I prefer your translations, Margaret.

    As a Berlin Alexanderplatz novel- and film-fan, I must admit to some disorientation at reading about – an albeit Alte – Nikolaikirche elsewhere.

  2. I must say, when I hear ‘Nikolaikirche’ alone, I think of Leipzig, and that’s despite the fact that I did part of my Ph.D. on ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’!

    But these two points aside, that translation is perfectly OK. It was looked at by others before being put up, and I think they did a good job of buying the translation. It serves the purpose.

  3. OK, but profanation still turns the church into a Pagan desecration (Shorter Oxford Dictionary) and sounds like a place for rehabilitated sinners – echoes of the UK Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.

    Intriguing to hear part of your Ph.D. was on Berlin Alexanderplatz. Someone ought to write or shoot a post-GDR sequel: ‘From Alexanderplatz fuit-&-veg to Nikolaiviertel Boutique – Franz Biberkopf beats bankruptcy yet again’.

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