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?