Archive for January, 2010

The problem with a German conversation

January 14, 2010

Life as a translator is difficult. There are some words you just can’t quite pin down.

One of my recent favourites is Gespräch. It can mean an informal conversation. It can mean a telephone call. It can mean an interview: a job interview, appraisal interview etc. etc. It can also, however, mean a group discussion. I recently came across an example which had been (correctly enough) translated as “moderated interview” (“moderated” being another problem – more commonly “facilitated” in English, but “moderated” is used in the same meaning, and in a multilingual environment using the cognate has its charms) – followed later in the same project by two files which used the same word to describe a situation where a manager talked to all of his/her staff. You do get panel interviews in English, but the description made it clear it was a multi-party discussion, not necessarily a group on one side, an individual on the other.

The trouble is, though, it is best to use one term if people may be looking for the topic on an intranet or whatever. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with “interview/discussion” in that context, though.

Is there a cover-all word in English? Dialogue also implies only two sides. Discussion can be two people or more, but in a formal situation you would never use it – “I went to company X for a job discussion last week”? I don’t think so.

Should we invent one? Multilogue? Verbal interaction? – “I went to company X for a job verbal interaction last week”??? Naaa.

The fun begins for the translator when Gespräch is translated one way for the one-on-one meeting, then pops up its head again weeks or months later as the group version – but term 1 is already established in the company, and if there is no distinction in the source language it is often hard to convince people that there has to be a distinction in the target. And in cases like the above the words have to fit into systems, so you can’t dismiss it by doing it differently on a case-by-case basis.

Even back in my days as a student 30 years ago some translation theory was about things that are understood or perceived differently in different cultures – one nation’s red is another’s orange, our black grapes are the Germans’ blue grapes etc. I remember once, many years ago, spending much time and sweat trying to get a development engineer to tell me whether the word “Achse” in a technical text was an “axle” or an “axis”. A colleague apparently had the same experience quite recently. In German, there is no distinction between the words – but it took me years to get my head round the fact that there is also no difference between the concepts. All languages and nations have examples of this, as in the familiar one that to the Anglo-Saxons “snow” is only one word, whereas to the Inuit there are many distinctions, each with its own term. Since the days of high-speed rail, of course, the UK is naturally familiar with the notion that there are different kinds of snow, in particular the wrong kind.

As in my last blog entry, it all adds to the richness of the job and of operating in a multi-lingual, multi-cultural context. There are times when easy answers would be nice, though.