Translations from German / Denglisch

I am proud to be able to present Ben Teague‘s checklist on ‘Was this text translated from the German?’ – all the way from Athens (that’s Athens, Georgia). I will comment on this separately.


(1) Already misused in sentences like

*Already in 1969 human beings visited the Moon

. . . or, even worse,

*Human beings visited the moon already in 1969

This often comes from language such as bereits 1969. Better:

Human beings visited the Moon as early as 1969 (virtually the same meaning)
As early as 1969, human beings visited the Moon (nearly the same meaning, time stressed)
By 1969 human beings had visited the Moon (the meaning now a little distorted)
By 1969 human beings had already visited the Moon (with the schon item restored, but note that already implies a link to a further part of the discourse)

(2) Beziehungsweise. Several things can go wrong in the translation:

bq. (2a) Use of respectively as a conjunction. It isn’t one.
(2b) Use of the blatantly un-English abbreviation resp.
(2c) Rendering of beziehungsweise (bzw.) as *or in one of the cases when it doesn’t really mean that.
(2d) Use of respectively when it doesn’t accomplish anything.
(2e) Attempts to make respectively carry too much freight.

Cases (a) and (b) call for just one remark: Don’t ever make these errors.

Case (c) is deeper and more difficult. German writers use beziehungsweise to keep lists straight:

Die Wahrscheinlichkeit eines Sturms bzw. einer Flut ist hoch. The probability of a storm or (a) flood is high.

In this instance bzw. means exactly or. But the word also expresses distribution:

Die Feder bzw. Bleistifte sind blau bzw. schwarz. The pens and pencils are blue and black, respectively. (I.e., pens are blue and pencils are black.)

Avoid the almost meaningless

*The pens or pencils are blue or black

. . . and the even worse

*The pens and pencils are blue and black.

Case (d) is sometimes induced by special uses of bzw., for example:

Die Federn sind blau bzw. schwarz. The pens are blue or black.

The German sentence says that some pens are blue and some are black, not that each pen is blue and black. In my opinion,

*The pens are blue or (and) black, respectively

is usually a mistranslation because it contains the nonfunctioning last word.

Case (e) comes about because beziehungsweise in German is a good deal stronger than respectively. You can for example make multiply parallel structures such as

Die Feder bzw. Bleistifte bzw. Kugelschreiber sind aus Gänsekielen gefertigt bzw. stammen aus China bzw. enthalten Spiralfeder.

(It is barbaric, but technically not incorrect.) Consider

*The pens or pencils or ballpoints, respectively, are made from goose quills or (and) come from China or (and) contain coil springs.

It’s silly to follow German rules of distribution in English. The sentence expresses three thoughts and should be divided:

The pens are made from goose quills; the pencils come from China; the ballpoints contain coil springs.

(3) German-style hyphenation in compounds. Expressions like


correctly become

Emergency off button
Home page (or homepage)
Safety edge switch

with no hyphens. If we have definite rules in this area, they are complicated. Native usage is the best guide. The next-best is that English most commonly builds short strings of nouns in “open” fashion, neither merged (*offbutton) nor hyphenated (*off-button). When an open compound functions as an adjective, however, it gets hyphens:

common-rail injector
porch-swing chain
pug-mill drive

12 thoughts on “Translations from German / Denglisch

  1. A couple of good observations – which seem to offer a portmanteau for all of our pet peeves. For example:
    – Overuse of “as well as” (the German “sowie” is usually best translated by a comma).
    – “So called” meaning something other than “alleged”.
    That’s just a couple off the top of my head. No doubt others can add a few more.

  2. >>Not-Aus-Knopf

    correctly become

    Emergency off button
    Home page (or homepage)
    Safety edge switch

  3. Frage an die geballte Fachkompetenz der Muttersprachler: Was ist mit “and/or”, was ich ins Deutsche meist als “bzw.”

  4. @Robert: ins Deutsche geht die Gleichung “and/or = bzw.” wahrscheinlich meist auf.
    Umgekehrt aber nicht immer, weil “bzw.” oft ein kontextbezogenes “und” ODER “oder” signalisiert oder zumindest keine Aussage dar

  5. Paul: I take your point, but if it is an emergency off button (in U.S. English), then it won’t take a hyphen, because the term will be ‘off button’ with a single adjective. That leaves the safety edge switch, which I know nothing about. Examples of hyphenated compound adjectives follow.

    Robert: Yes, sometimes ‘and/or’ works, but as Victor says, not always. The worst situation is where I don’t know enough to tell whether it means ‘and/or’ or ‘and’ or ‘or’, but it makes a difference which I write.
    By the way, ‘and/or’ is sometimes criticized in books on writing good legal English. Mellinkoff writes that it is ‘an old merger of and with or, having no fixed meaning after more than a century of litigation. The allure of brevity and the phony appearance of mathematical precision convince the lazy, the ignorant, and the harried that at one stroke and/or covers all the possibilities of both conjunctions’. So maybe it is a good equivalent of beziehungsweise!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.