Everybody Can English: Denglish Atrocities

For Friday amusement for our fellow German speakers, we can't help but briefly address a gigantic language pitfall in German-speaking countries: Denglish. For the uninitiated, that's an atrocious combination of German (Deutsch in German) and English = Denglish. While most of our direct clients in Europe have a fairly good command of the English language, they are usually not experts, which is why they hire us. However, once in a while a client wants to correct something that turns out to be, well, wrong. Trying to convince them of the contrary is sometimes quite a challenge. Here are some of our favorite examples from the past weeks.

  • For one of our translations, we wrote about the author's "late father" (verstorbener Vater in German). However, our client insisted on using "dead father". He was adamant that "late" was not correct.
  • Prepositions in English are tricky, and unfortunately, cannot be translated literally from German. Some of our favorite are "she died ON cancer" when we were insisting that someone dies "OF" cancer. The top prize goes to "she called him ON" (German: sie rief ihn an).
  • We had another client who was offended by our use of "ordinary" (as in average, normal) in one of his texts. He was saying that the translation of this was "ordinär" (vulgar). Of course, it's not, but he just wouldn't take our word or the dictionary's for it.
Unfortunately, the customer is not always right; and it's a fine line which can be difficult to deal with in our profession. Usually, when a question comes up, we give the customer our linguistic and grammatical reasoning, cite from relevant sources, or explain the word's common usage. If all else fails, we say that we feel very comfortable with our recommendation, but that the final decision is, of course, up to the client. However, this could be dangerous as an atrocious term could appear in a translation associated with us. Luckily, thus far, most clients have taken our advice (at least that we know of). How does everyone else deal with this balancing act?

We know that Denglish examples abound, and they are always good for a chuckle, especially on a Friday afernoon. We'd love to hear your recent highlights!


bonnjill on December 12, 2008 at 2:46 PM said...

I translated a website for a German spa and the agency proofreader changed "glass of water" to "beaker of water" because it wasn't served in a glass. I was very glad that I was able to catch that and give her an English lesson.

Anonymous said...

I used to do work (through an agency) for a certain Japanese government agency. The people in this agency spent a lot of time overseas, and were in general very confident of their English ability.

I'd deliver a translation, and get it back marked up with penned-in clueless corrections. Quite often when I told the agency that one of their "corrections" was wrong, the government idiot would insist that I couldn't be a native speaker of English.

Fun times. Needless to say, I don't do work for that agency any more. :)

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on December 16, 2008 at 3:03 PM said...

Thanks for your comments! I love the "beaker of water", that is a good example. It's always good to have a sense of humor about what we do, it keeps it interesting and real. We certainly enjoy helping our clients get their messages across correctly and well -- that's our job.

It seems that, completely unexpectedly, we might have offended someone with our post. Being offensive could not have been further from our minds. As all linguists, we occasionally share funny stories about translations mishaps. As is evident for everyone in our community, it's all in good fun. We also laugh about our mistakes, of course. Thanks to an anonymous poster (we generally don't publish anonymous posts) who pointed out that I had put "pronoun" when I meant to say "proposition". I stand corrected!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on December 16, 2008 at 3:19 PM said...

Argh, we meant to say "preposition".

Kevin Lossner on December 16, 2008 at 10:23 PM said...

The lack of editing features for blog comments is frustrating, isn't it? I've been merrily spreading typos across the planet for weeks now :-(

Denglish is often my bane as well, and sometimes it isn't easy to remain patient with the "experts" who provide me with instruction in my native language. Recently I was so irritated at 70 pages worth of Verschlimmbesserungen ("improvements" that are not) that I asked a "neutral" third party to review the text and respond to the client. The incompetence of the corrections upset that person so much that her response made a nuclear strike look restrained, and I expect the client may be history despite my damage control efforts.... The moral? Never delegate a response to something like this.

Anonymous said...

I used to work for an entertainment company that put out localized versions of the various fun children's and family activities they publish in which cool, fun, and interesting language plays an important role. They started to realize they had a problem when they started getting negative feedback on the localized boxes and covers for their products; it was up to me to explain that you cannot have the English editorial team keeping the translations so close to English that the coolness and fun are lost. I had to explain that they had paid a lot of money for very good close translations of the English but very ineffective localized copy appropriate the various target countries. It was an expensive mistake for them to learn to "let go" and trust their localization subcontractor (who did a fabulous job once their reins were loosed).

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The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

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