’not really‘ German

A little while ago a friend of mine send me a link to an article titled ‚Mistranslation and language change: German ’sharing‘. You can read it here.

I enjoyed the article for several reasons. First of all I have been involved with translating English/German off and on for the past 25 years. Secondly, my profession as an actor using both languages has occasionally involved dubbing and voice-over work. Below is my comment on Philipp’s thoughts.

Hi Philipp (that’s also my son’s name, btw), my name is Axel, and I’ve been working as a translator and interpreter since round about 1990.

I take it you are a German native speaker so we have something in common there. Your thoughts on the matter of ’share‘ and ‚teilen‘ are quite awesome as they point out one of those fine lines in the world of translators where no matter how hard you try you just don’t seem to get it right no matter what. And if you’re sure that what you’ve come up with makes perfect sense and also survives several correction phases, the customer might still be unhappy.

Take this group of words, for instance:
control, check, test – steuern, kontrollieren, prüfen.

When I worked in a small office back in the 90s we were doing a job for the Bundeswehr.
The Bundeswehr planned to sell some of their ships to the Australian Navy who in turn used those German ships to compliment a bigger package deal for the Indian Navy. The absurd world of arms deals, National Defense programs and logic in the military community.

We were hired to translate pretty boring stuff, a battleship radar system installed on the ships and originally put together by some Italian engineers. We had to wade through a really bad German manual in order to translate that into English and were wondering after a while who had initially come up with a manual that was verging on the absurd at times for German native speakers but was, after all, still the official manual in use for the Bundeswehr tech guys. Our guess was: An Italian translator.

So after a couple of meetings the Bundeswehr official finally admitted that there was in fact an English version already but that someone on the side of the Australians had refused to accept it as a proper manual because it was so bad. It turned out that the Italian engineers had not bothered with their native language and written their manual in English right from the start – and bad English at that. Then a German press officer had been given the terrible task to translate it into German. Now our job was to come up with an English version that would be acceptable for the Australians. For me as a young English Lit. student the meetings with the Bundeswehr guy were simply enlightening (After all, I am a conscientious objector).

When we pointed out that throughout the clumsy English original ‚control‘ had been generously used for  both ‚steuern‘ and ‚kontrollieren‘, probably because the Italians hadn’t known better, and that this inconsistency had wriggled its way into the German manual, something that was not only wrong but could lead to all kinds of disasters on a battle ship, the Bundeswehr official simple said ‚we’ve been doing it like that for the last 30 years and we’ll continue to do so‘.

He explicitly stated that ‚kontrollieren‘ should be translated as ‚to control‘ and ‚prüfen‘ should become ‚to check’, even though we tried to convince him that it was incorrect. That was the last meeting with him and we were clearly expected to deliver another document flawed by mistakes and imperfection if we wanted to get paid.

And that’s when my boss – a Scot – went home, had a whisky, laughed, and then used the ‚find and replace‘-option in a 2000-page document without so much as a second thought. We had wild fantasies of Indian officers causing a major conflict in a stand-off with the Pakistani Navy because of a manual construed in a kind of ‚Chinese whisper’ fashion and polished for delivery by a team of three translators working out of Kiel, an old port town in the North of Germany. Ah, the pipe dreams of translators…

Another thing that strikes me as noteworthy in the translator’s world of ’supply and demand‘ is the subtle changes in a couple of German phrases and idioms over the years, mainly caused by the need to lip-synch American TV shows. The most prominent of them is ‚nicht wirklich‘ for ’not really‘.

Now, when I was young no one would say ‚nicht wirklich’. The typical way of saying you didn’t fully agree with a statement or answering questions such as „Do you like Goat Cheese?“ was always ‚eigentlich nicht‘. So what happened?

‚Not really’ and ‚nicht wirklich‘ make an awesome pair when it comes to dubbing movies. The syllabels fit nicely, the lips move in a similar fashion, the mouth can stay open at the end. But what about the semantics?

In the English language ‚really‘ is used casually in all sorts of phrases. The German ‚wirklich‘ can be used casually – „Das ist wirklich lustig!“ – but there seems to be a slight tendency to use it in a more serious way, namely to amplify the general gist of an argument, as in ‚Ich hab das wirklich nicht gesehen!‘ And therein lies the problem. ‚Wirklich nicht‘ emphasizes the negative reply to question already asked twice „Did you do that?“ – „No.“ –  „You didn’t do it?“ –  „No, really, I did not do it!“

‚Wirklich nicht‘ is alright and works in a lot of situations. ‚Nicht wirklich‘ however is idiosyncratic. It doesn’t really mean anything somehow. And yet it does, at least today, because it has been around for so long that most people don’t seem to have a problem with it and will readily incorporate it in their speech act. They use it in exactly the same way you would use ‚not really‘, simply because they have seen it on TV so many times that it is synonymous.

And yet, for me as a German native speaker ‚nicht wirklich‘ has all the wrong connotations to make it work as a casual reply to a question about personal taste or a superficial response to, let’s say, the weather. ‚Nicht wirklich‘ smacks of fundamental philosophical thoughts connected to the realm of ‚Wahrheit‘ ‚Wirklichkeit‘ and, of course, ‚Realität‘, of a debate about our perception of reality and ultimately, the subjectiveness of that perception. In the German language there is a difference between ‚Realität’ and ‚Wirklichkeit‘. One is ‚reality‘, the other something like ‚realness‘.

I guess you could come up with a very specific monosyllabic TV sitcom in which two nerds are checking various philosophical theories about the universe, holding up various semi-transparent blueprints with star formations, and finally one proposes that model A is a good contender and shows the other one his chart. „Real?‘, he asks, to which the other one replies: „Not real“. That answer is about the only scenario I can think of where a literal translation „nicht wirklich“ would make sense. So what’s my point?

Over the course of almost sixty years of professional dubbing in the German movie and TV industry, with such iconic shows as ‚Bonanza’, ‚Columbo‘ and ‚Star Trek‘, this industry has changed and reshaped German language possibly more than any other cultural phenomenon (the music industry – especially rap and hip-hop – constituting the other great influence). Not only did the people responsible for the nitty-gritty field work in the dubbing studios have to come up with a German translation that would find equivalents for the socio-linguistic subtleties of American English based on a much more diverse culture due to the nation’s history – immigration for one -, they also had to ‚fit it in‘, as it were, to make it bite-sized so that the German actors would be able to make the German version sound cool and extra sharp. The official German was too formal in its design, too long in its structure and too rich in its semantic substance. Cutting it down was like ‚pimping your ride‘ culturally and the audiences loved it. In fact, there have been a couple of shows that were considered mediocre at best in the original and yet, their German counterparts achieved cult status.

Nowadays, the German language is utilized in many subcultures with a confidence and panache that was unthinkable when I was a kid. I am expecting to get a big NO WAY for the following opinion but the only person I can think of off the top of my head back in the 70s who could make German lyrics sound cool was Udo Lindenberg.

One note-worthy aspect of that change is the influence of second and third generation immigrants who took the liberty to play around with a language that had not been the native tongue of their parents but was one of theirs now. It seems that this freedom to express oneself in one language – when you know how to use two – is linked to the heightened awareness that language is used as a tool first and derives its value as an artistic device only after it has been tried and tested in a real environment.

Any language will – and, arguably, has to – change over time to cope with various challenges in society. For me, it is an interesting side-effect that some of these changes in my native language were brought about by an industry that simply does not exist in other regions of the world – e.g. Scandinavia -, as their audiences will rather watch and listen to the original versions than come up with what I would deem a shrewd art form in itself. Who would want to take away the vocal expressiveness of an actor, one of the most characteristic aspects of acting, and replace it with something that in many instances over-stylizes the performance?

It stands to reason my kids will not agree with me because they cannot recall a time when the global entertainment industry still had to be channeled by intermediaries, such as the dubbing and marketing community, in order to be accessible to mainstream Germany. Today, you go online and simply compare for yourself and in many instances you will choose the original over the surrogate. Also, filmmakers, musician, writers and other artists have accepted and incorporated so many global trends that this minute detail of linguistics is irrelevant to their expressiveness and a mere niche of a few academics.

But then why, I ask myself as an actor who works as a voice-artist occasionally, is dubbing still such a big business in this country? Do we really want to hear our language when we watch a movie, even though it is askew and slightly off?

Well, there’s one catch: being almost bilingual doesn’t make it any easier for me when it comes to watching French movies. So, with respect to the level of command of the original language dubbing seems to be the lesser of two evils. And therein, I guess, lies the dilemma of my argument.

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