English is confusing too!

August 16, 2019

Context is a rich source of confusion in English as well as German.

How about:

“You can’t be too modest” – Do you mean “It is unwise to be too modest, you’ll get trampled underfoot by more ambitious people”? Or do you mean “You should always be as modest as you can’t, don’t overestimate yourself”? Though some constructions of this sort, e.g. “you can’t be too careful” would probably never be misunderstood.

I have a bet on with a friend at the moment. I was thrilled yesterday when he wrote “Look forward to receiving your EUR 20” – until I realised he didn’t mean “You can look forward to receiving …”, it was a casual way of saying “I look forward to receiving…”!

Whatever the weather

August 29, 2017

A good while a go I heard a TV comic making fun of the tagline “xxx sponsors Weathernews on Channel yyy. Whatever the weather”. Well, yes, that figures. Can you imagine the effort that would go into sponsoring sunshine only? Contract clauses, forecasting ….

More recently, I’ve noticed TV weather experts saying things like: “And for those who like it cooler, by next Thursday we are likely to see temperatures of 16 degrees”. Is cold weather only of interest to those who like it? No one else needs a warm jacket?

On the other hand a) these things package the key point (“xxx is a generous sponsor, buy our product”; “it is going to get cooler) attractively b) a bald statement would be boring and c) most people just extract that key point and don’t analyse the wording. However, I can’t help wondering: just how little actual content (okay, call it “common sense”) does TV and magazine copy need to have in order to carry a marketing-type message/message with short-term relevance?

Cauliflower “cheese” ad hoc

July 11, 2017

Cauliflower & quark

As a cholesterol sufferer, I shouldn’t really have cheese. I do get hungry for a lot of things I used to love, one of them being cauliflower cheese. This is an extremely adaptable version:

No quantities given, depends on how much you want really.

1 cauliflower, even a small one gives 2-3 portions

Potatoes as required

Quark (fat-free for me, for people on normal diets please yourself)

Mustard (Dijon is good, a bit of wholegrain is nice for texture)

Dash of Lee & Perrins or Tabasco if you want

Bit of olive oil (butter for the lucky ones) and milk

Some flavoursome cheese that you don’t need much of – grated Parmesan, blue cheese (go easy with the latter if you’re fat-sensitive, but a small amount gives a lot of flavour (this insight courtesy of friend Charlie in Yorkshire, many thanks)

Any flavours you want to add – capers, chorizo, boiled ham, serrano ham/prosciutto, whatever. Here, too, if you need to restrict your diet look out for salt and fat contents – you can always fry off the chorizo and pour off excess fat, for example.

A few tomatoes



Heat oven to 180 degrees C (fan oven, say 190-200 degrees C for a conventional oven).

Boil the cauliflower till al dente, boil the potatoes as preferred. In an ovenproof dish, mix quark with mustard to taste – when tasting, don’t forget the flavour will develop later – add milk if too firm, maybe a bit of nutmeg or something. A bit of flavoursome cheese if you want. Add the cauliflower when cooked.

Add a layer of ham/chorizo (thinly sliced) on top, alternating rows with sliced tomatoes. Adjust amounts and thickness of slices to taste and dietary requirements, vegetarians could use tomatoes only, or add a few capers or pickled cucumbers, (jalapeno) peppers in oil or whatever – (drat – found capers on counter after my version went into the oven this time – I forgot to put them in but it tasted fine anyway).

Boil or microwave potatoes and place on top, mashed with olive oil or for the lucky with butter, and a little (fat-free or to taste) milk as needed.

Scatter some grated Parmesan on top. Season to taste with pepper and (if you’re allowed) salt.

Bake for 30 minutes or so, none of the ingredients really need cooking so it won’t ever be raw, but check temperature with a skewer before serving. You could probably do it in the microwave oven as well, but personally I like the top crispy.

Serve and enjoy, with side salad if you want.

HEIDELBERG GROUP OF translators celebrating International Translation Day, 30 September 2016

September 30, 2016

#connectworlds – for one day only! Make their initiative go viral! Follow the hashtag!

In praise of a great translation

May 21, 2016

Most of us Brits will have studied this poem by John Keats at school – how many remember that it is about a translation that inspired him, not a beautifully worded travelogue?

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Update on “Gespraech”

February 12, 2016

After so many years, I have now found in a number of monolingual contexts that the English equivalent of “Gespraech” is simply “conversation”!

Context is key – but the richness of language leads to other problems

May 6, 2015

Adding to the post about context resolving ambiguities: the other side of the coin is that a single meaning can of course be correctly translated in several-to-many different ways. Any translator knows that, it is also used by the Society of Authors to explain why translators are admitted as members: translation is a creative process, a book can be translated in many different valid ways, depending on the translator’s creative choices.

However, so can purely descriptive, factual texts. And the opportunity to become familiar with a client’s existing body of communication is particularly important here. Simply put, if your “Anlage” (see blog post on context) has been clearly identified as a large piece of technical kit, it can be a “plant” or a “system” or a “machine” or a “unit” or probably many more options in English. Failing to align with the existing material will confuse readers and make the client indignant – so clients, do allow time and money for us to engage with your content!

PS: this doesn’t apply to everyone – good clients have been doing it for years!

It depends on the context ….

May 6, 2015

According to a colleague (stand up Jonathan Downie), the number of translators it takes to change a light bulb “depends on the context”. Okay, it is a phrase we translators use often. Why? Here are some examples from English and German.

1. “You can’t be too humble/modest here”
– in the context of learning or study, for example, this would mean it is good to be modest. In an environment with a lot of dominant people, it would mean you shouldn’t be too modest, otherwise you will get nowhere.

2. “Produkt X wird nur von Unternehmen Y bezogen”
– You could translate this sentence “Product X is only purchased from Company Y”. However, with the range of meanings of the little word “von” it could also mean “Product X is only purchased by Company Y”. That’s a real example where the translation was changed after two or three further sentences – because the context made the sense clear.

3. “Sanction”
– It can mean either a ban or restriction – political sanctions on imports, for example – or a sign of approval.

4. “Anhalten”
– A German verb which can mean “continue” or “stop” – a similar example is “einstellen”, which can mean either “to start” (when used reflexively) or “to discontinue”. It also means “to hire”, less easy to confuse but you still need the context to know for sure.

5. “Anlage”
– One of my favourites, the root means “[something that is] laid on/at” – so in German it becomes anything from an investment to a complex of buildings to a large machine or system to a green and pleasant park. Confusing? Maybe only if you are investing in a factory….

It’s not just a matter of showing forbearance towards the translator who doesn’t immediately understand what everyone in your company knows.

It also has important implications for the increasingly common practice of expecting a translator to “plug in” new parts of an existing text without reference to that text. It may look like a good way to save money – but producing communications where the reader will know his money from his machine because the translator has been allowed to read the – yes, that tired old word context – could be worth a few pennies.

Postscript to cooking tip

June 23, 2014

By the way, having written the “recipe” for fast pizza in fun following a cooking disaster, it occurs to me that with the right topping, quite a savoury one maybe, it could really make a nice alternative to pizza bread as a nibble before a meal etc. The bits that stick to the top shelf harden and come off fairly easily, and if the pan beneath is lined with foil (preferably oiled with olive oil to prevent sticking) then no major cleaning up should be needed. Is putting a frozen soft dough on a top shelf and letting it drip off during baking a new technique? Hmm, moral and intellectual rights hereby asserted unless anyone can prove otherwise……

Cooking tip

June 23, 2014

I have just invented a quick way to bake pizza – worth sharing, I hope.

1. Preheat oven to 190 degrees Celsius.

2. Remove all wrappings from home-made frozen pizza and place on top shelf of oven. Set timer for 30 minutes.

3. After 10 minutes, check pizza. At this stage pizza should have disappeared from top shelf and will be in grill pan below, in several hundred small pieces.

4. Collect wits. Take a few seconds to realize that pizza has not in fact exploded. It is not supposed to go straight into the oven without a baking tray, this home made pizza has a much softer dough than the commercial ones.

5. Rapidly adjust timer to 15 minutes instead of 30.

6. When golden brown and cooked through, pizza can be removed from oven, still in grill pan. Using a metal scraper, transfer pieces (some as much as 1.5cm wide with a fairly soft consistency, others smaller and crisper) to a bowl and serve with salad of your choice.

Tip 1: When you have gained experience with the method you may wish to combine steps 3 to 5.

Tip 2: Line grill pan with aluminium foil, otherwise it could take days to clean.