Saturday, November 5, 2011

lost in translation

My sister sent me a link to this post from ZsaZsa Bellagio that I wanted to re-post:

This list got me thinking.... You've probably heard of Schadenfreude, Zeitgeist, Gemütlichkeit, unheimlich, and there are tons of words from German philosophy that aren't easily expressed in English but I wanted to add some more German/English "untranslatable" terms that I encounter or think about more often, some of you will have heard these before...When terms are untranslatable, or not directly translatable, it's really interesting to think about the language philosophy, and why you can't express something the same way...and what it means about thinking and feeling if you don't have the same vocabulary to express something. oops I got a little carried away with this list, but I still feel like I'm forgetting the 10 things a day that come to mind! Obviously the list could be infinite...

ausschlafen  - to "sleep out", slightly different meaning than the English "to sleep in", which usually  means to sleep in late. You have time to sleep in on the weekend. The German ausschlafen means you got all the sleep you need. So you can get up at 6:00 and be super awake and someone can say with surprise, "Ausgeschlafen?" (slept out?)

awkward - no good German translation for this English word. Also in English "slang" it's become quite popular to call things awkward...Germans don't have this. The closest words are maybe unangenehm (uncomfortable) or komisch (strange).

ich habe dich lieb - In German there is more of a continuum to express like/love. You can say Ich mag dich, Ich habe dich lieb, Ich liebe dich. In English we don't have this second expression, which is literally "I have you dear", or "you are dear to me".  It's used like "I love you" but less intense.

pumpkin, squash - In German they don't have a distinction between these...they have Zucchini and Kürbis but no other word. There are lots of examples like this, which just reinforces how arbitrary classification systems are! Are squash pumpkins, or pumpkins squash? Who decides? A similar thing is that in German they have multiple words for what we would call a "bug", including both Tier [animal, beast] and Käfer [bug, beetle]. It seems very strange to me to realize you have a bug crawling on you and say, "Bwah, ein Tier!"

Feierabend - it's the time when you get off work. So when you're leaving a business/shop/office in the late afternoon, you can say "Schönen Feierabend", enjoy your "quittin' time". :)

Freund, Bekannte - Related to the variations of "love," above. In English we use the term "friend" quite loosely, especially in this age of Facebook "friends." But in German they distinguish more between Freund and Bekannte, more like "acquaintance".  Of course we have  the word acquaintance in English, but I would never use it, like "oh I met up with an acquaintance of mine at the movie theater last night." I think we are quick to call people friends.

homemade  - German has "hausgemacht" or "selbstgemacht" but doesn't have the same cozy ring to me

ein roter Faden  - literally "red thread," a common theme or topic, something unifying a story or a film or a "thread" running through, giving continuity to something. So you can say "this talk had no 'red thread', I couldn't follow it"

schwimmen - also means "to float" in German. They have no separate word for inanimate things on the surface of the water... "Das Boot schwimmt auf dem See" the boat is swimming on top of the lake. "Fat floats," Fett schwimmt oben. :)

Ohrwurm- a word for "a song stuck in your head," as in Ich habe einen Ohrwurm, I have an "ear worm"! haha, when I first heard this I thought this woman actually had some kind of illness, some kind of bug in her ear...still makes me laugh!

Then there are nouns that have slightly different meanings, like Haus or Brot. If you live in an apartment building, that is also a Haus in German. I say "the facade of this Haus has lots of beautiful balconies," but you couldn't use the English "house" in that way. Also in German you talk about "a" bread, not usually a "loaf" of bread.  So you can say "I would like a bread" or "2 breads", 2 Brote. Again, it's interesting to link language and culture, think about what it means about American culture (or German culture) that we have very different images of what a "house" is, something you think of as being so basic. What to Americans is the classic "house" picture Germans would specify as being a Einfamilien-Haus, a "one-family" house.

And for the real grammar freaks among you (I know some of you are...) there are also lots of English nouns that have German verbs, or vice-versa, or other parts of speech that don't line up. For example, in English we "have breakfast," and in German you use frühstücken, the verb. "I get up and then I breakfast," Ich stehe auf und dann frühstücke ich.  And they have a verb for "shame" and not an adjective, "Ich habe mich geschämt," not "I was ashamed". Really interesting to think about what some of this constructions mean for the way you actually feel or express the feeling of a certain emotion.

This list is evidence of the difficulty of one-to-one translation...and why as a language instructor it's always frustrating when students expect there to always be an easy translation, or a noun-to-noun translation, or whatever. I think it reflects a deeper understanding of the way language works to realize that you have to think about different ways of expressing a feeling, a concept, a thing, or an idea. I think as a teacher it's something we should help our students to recognize, but it takes a while...I think (especially middle or high school students) they think we just don't know the word when we tell them they can't say it like that!

There are so many more examples I can't think of at the moment!  German also has tons of composite nouns (hence the really really long words...), so you can also make up infinite number of combinations. That's why there is no "longest" word in the German language. They can keep getting longer and longer...I know German gets a bad reputation for sounding "harsh" and for being grammatically challenging, but once you really get into the language, you realize how creative it is, and how beautiful and poetic some of the composite nouns are. 

Feel free to comment with more examples!


  1. you forgot "droben" --which means "up over there"--think about how much time you save in a lifetime by having to spare yourself those extra two syllables! amazing!

  2. haha, you are a kook!

  3. Don't forget:

    "Ich weiss, wo der Hase läuft"