Lost in translation

photo credit: @houcinencibphotography via Unsplash

Sometimes people ask me if it’s hard for me to switch between English and German. My sister would joke and tell me that I was ‘losing my German’ when I struggle to remember a word in German when we talk. The truth is, I still speak German regularly with my family (at least 3x a week) and switching between languages has become pretty seamless for the most part.

I think one of the biggest things to master when you learn a new language is learning and retaining vocabulary, but also understanding context and use of particular words/phrases. The easiest way to see how complicated this is, is when you put a paragraph into “Google translator”.

Sometimes the translation works, more often than not, the general gist of the sentence is there, but it sounds weird, sometimes bordering on bizarre. The reason is, there are single words that have multiple translations in other languages (and figuring out which one to use in any given context can be difficult), and there are multiple different words that have only one translation in the other language. For example, did you know that in there is no distinction between “sky” and “heaven” in the German language? It’s both Himmel.)

This phenomenon is true both ways! 

The biggest stumbling blocks though are words/phrases that don’t have a 1:1 equivalent in the other language. I touched a little bit on this in my post about code-switching, when I said that I struggled to find a good translation for the word “pet peeve” and end up inserting this word into my German sentence.

Or, if there is a direct translation, sometimes the word sounds “strange” in the other language because it’s not used in the same way/context. And there are many more words like that than you’d think. 

Last week, I was talking to my parents over FaceTime when I stumbled over the word “enable(r)”. I couldn’t for the life of me find a good German translation. I mean, there is a verb in German (ermöglichen, befähigen), but it only works in certain contexts. And there is no one-word translation for the noun, or similar word that carries the same meaning. It’s hard to explain, but it’s like I know what the word means in English, but it’s not possible to translate it eloquently. I was able to describe what I meant, but I think my parents agreed that there is not one single word in German that works as easily in the specific context.

It’s a rather strange phenomenon. I understand and “feel” the English word, what it means, and how it is used, but I cannot properly translate or even convey its exact meaning in German, even though German is my native language. I find this so peculiar.

Do you want more examples?

There are a few other words like this that come to mind that don’t have an apt, one-word translation:

  • Awkward. There are 37, I am not even kidding, thirty-seven (!) translations for the word “awkward” on dict.cc. None of them conveys the same connotation as the word awkward in English. How is this possible?
  • To jinx. It’s such a useful verb, yet, no similar German word exists. The dictionary offers a translation (verhexen), but that’s not quite the same. It’s better suited as a translation for “to bewitch”.
  • Anxiety. Again, 17 translations that somewhat all express worry, trepidation, and restlessness, and those words are not wrong to describe anxiety symptoms, but there is not one word that encompasses all meanings of the word ‘anxiety’.
  • To nap. There’s a word for nap that literally translates to “mid-day sleep”(Mittagsschlaf) and another one (Nickerchen) which is probably the most appropriate translation for the noun (although not as commonly used). Still, sadly there’s no verb that goes along with it. It would be so useful. 
  • To advocate. You can use advocate (Advokat) as a noun in German, but the translations for the verb are “close, but not quite right” depending on context (befürworten, verteidigen, einstehen). If I want to say “I need to advocate better for myself”, I’d probably use “für mich einstehen” (stand up for myself) but it has a more passive, defensive notion. I think that the word ‘to advocate’ feels a lot more proactive and strong.

I am sure I can find many, many more examples. I am just scratching the surface here. I am constantly amazed by how layered language is and how many thoughts and concepts exist in the human brain that sometimes can’t be expressed verbally. In fact, it’s mind-boggling how limited we often are in expressing what we truly mean. Maybe that’s why effective communication – even in a single language, let alone between languages – is so prone to miscommunication and misunderstandings.

The power of language, right? It’s endlessly fascinating.

Do other non-native English speakers, or people who speak foreign languages, experience this? (They must!) Do you have any examples?

  1. Ok, if there is no verb equivalent for napping…does that mean that napping is less common in Germany??? Same question for all of the other words, it’s just that I have napping on the brain right now;-)

    1. Haha, maybe we just don’t “talk“ about it, we just “do it”. LOL

  2. This is so fascinating to me and reminds me again how much I’m missing out on by only speaking one language *sigh*
    Life goal for retirement? It’s such a great skill and also amazing for general mental agility.
    I also find it funny (which you’ve talked about before) how sayings like “That takes the cake” or “Dog-tired” or “It’s a walk in the park” are pretty meaningless outside of our language (and then how other languages have their own unique sayings.

    1. Yes! Sayings/idioms in languages are the BEST thing. I honestly love learning them and about how the originated. So cool :)

  3. I am completely fascinated by people who are fluent in more than one language, for many reasons but especially for this one! For example, anyone reading your blog would never know that English is not your first language, because you write perfectly and with so much nuance. It is really amazing to me, as a person who struggles with basic conversational French and is just learning Spanish. Languages are so tricky! I am just fascinated by people who can just switch languages the way you can.

    1. Awww thank you friend. I appreciate your kind compliment and value it particularly because it’s coming from a great writer like yourself!

    2. This happens to me all the time! Language is so fascinating. I think it works the other way around, too (verschlimmbessern – when someone tried to improve something and made it even worse e.g. or me trying to explain what “Heimat” means). In German I would use “beschrei es nicht” for jinx- what would mean translated to scream about it. Do you think that works?

      1. Oh yes, “beschrei’ es nicht” sagt man im Deutschen… oder auch “sag das nicht zu laut” (but that would sound weird translating it back into English ;)).

  4. I’m not multi-lingual AT ALL, and I find these examples interesting and charming. I have sometimes put a phrase through google translate, and then back again (just for fun). The meaning gets lost pretty quickly, as does the grammar.

    1. Oh, that’s an interesting thing that you’ve put a phrase through google translate, and then back again – just to see what comes out at the other end. I can imagine it to be quite hilarious :)

  5. I am definitely mono-lingual, but due to work and leisure travel, I have picked up a smattering of several languages. I am just amazed at how certain languages will have one word that would take several words (or a full sentence) to translate in another. My favorite is from Japanese, which is “arigata-meiwaku,” which is the obligation to thank someone for something they did as a favor that you never actually wanted them to do but you need to act grateful anyway.

    There are also a few German words that relate to complex emotions that are really perfect. I can’t think of an example now, but they are there. I think the funniest blog post I read was a German woman (married to an American) who was on a diet and truly lamenting her life choices of giving up sweets and chocolates.

    1. Oh wow, that is really is a very short phrase in Japanese for THAT MUCH meaning. Isn’t language fascinating??
      One of the German words that you probably think of is “Schadenfreude” (there’s really no translation for it). I’ll try to think of more!

  6. I would like to echo that I sometimes forget that English is not your native language. You write so fluently and I never notice any dropped articles or unusual phrasings. It’s very impressive! It reminds me of how there was a Dutch man in our grad program and he messed up an idiom once in a very minor way – he said “it’s raining like cats and dogs” instead of “it’s raining cats and dogs” – and later on he overheard someone else say the idiom correctly. He turned to me, asked me if he’d said it wrong before, and when I said yes, he asked me why I didn’t correct him! 1) I understood exactly what he meant and 2) it was very close and 3) I don’t go around correcting grammar for people who are native speakers, let alone people who have taken the time to learn the language I speak fluently. He really beat himself up over that unnecessarily, I thought.

    Anyway, I think it’s always the idioms that really give away native speakers. Also, noises animals make. Cows go moo and dogs go woof woof, but that’s not true in every language!

  7. As you know I am loving these ind of posts. And I have to agree on all your words. There are no transaction that get’s the really meaning. I always use jinx in my German now. Same as awkward. And I would add humble. Also a word I feel like is not quiet possible to translate.

  8. This is so interesting to me! Especially because when I think of the German language, I think of the very specific words in it, that I wish we had in English (Backpfeifengesicht). Do you think the lack of the description for anxiety translates to people not prioritizing mental health as much?

  9. Oh, this is so fascinating. I do not speak another language but I studied Hebrew and Greek for my Masters and they had the same thing with one word that means heaven and sky. I guess since languages are cultural and so much of our experience is coloured and shaped by our cultural lens and biases it makes sense that it can be difficult to always translate accurately.

  10. I always love when you talk about being bilingual! I want to also state that unless you talked about English being your second language on the blog, I would never know! You write so well!
    I have just started learning Spanish through Duolingo (like everyone else, ha) and it’s been really fun. I should learn German since that’s my heritage, but it intimidates me!

  11. I, too, am impressed how well you can navigate 2 languages. It is never apparent that English is your second language. I am not bilingual so can’t quite relate. But I think about how some English speakers have kind of adopted the German word, Schadenfreude. We don’t have anything equivalent or as efficient as that word. I mean it’s not exactly a nice word, but it does describe something many of us can admit to having felt!

  12. I love it when you have posts like this, San. Etymology and really, anything to do with words, is so much fun. (And yes, I am a huge nerd. Why do you ask? ;>)

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