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Friday, June 19, 2009

The messes around with word order language

Sometimes I feel slightly ashamed that I'm not more proficient in German than I am. I did major in German, after all, and so you might expect me to be fluent, but I'm really more conversational than anything else. I can get by in Germany. I can order a Doener Kabab, mit allem, zum Mitnehmen (which really is all you need to know). I can read relatively simple writing with no problem. I can watch German movies, but subtitles are still helpful for more colloquial speech. If you speak to me in German, I will probably understand you, but I'll also probably answer back in English. But when someone learns that you majored in German, or any other language, they get this idea that you know everything about the language.

Not so. I am a mere novice.

You see, majoring in a foreign language is like majoring in English: it is more about literature than the language itself. Obviously you need a basic understanding of the language to survive, but you don't have to be a language expert to get a baccalaureate in German. Actually, the focus on literature as opposed to language itself is what prompted me to add a second major in linguistics (the study of language, to those of you who confuse this word with "cunnilingus". Although there are plenty of people who could stand a little instruction in that area, alas it is not taught in college [at least not in the classroom].)

Over the years at my job, I've been asked to translate a few German language patents into English, which is really cool, I like a challenge. But, man, it is difficult enough trying to understand patents in your native tongue, let alone your less-than-fluent second tongue. The language of a patent is very technical and legalese-ish, and sentences frequently run on to paragraph lengths. The syntax is very difficult to parse if you aren't paying close attention, and complex, abstract verbiage is preferred over simple plain language. I think this is because lawyers like to obfuscate, so that they create wiggle room in which to argue should the meaning of a phrase become a point of interest in potential patent litigation. If it's completely clear what something says, then they are stuck with that meaning, and to a lawyer, that is not generally a good thing.

Germans like to write run on sentences the length of paragraphs anyway, and it abounds in German lit, but it gets even worse in patents. The kicker is that verbs in German often appear at the end of a clause, and if you have other clauses nested within the main clause, you may have to search to the end of the paragraph-length sentence past several other verbs in order to find the verb that goes with the subject of the main clause. I sometimes have to draw diagrams for really complex sentences. I have no idea how Germans parse this stuff in their heads on the fly.

Even worse, Germans like to use a lot of adjectival phrases. In English, we use simple one or two word adjectives to precede nouns, and anything more complex generally comes after the noun in a relative clause, thus:

Those noisy kids that live in the apartment across the way are making a ruckus again.
Whereas the wording in German would read something like this:
Those noisy in the apartment across the way living kids are again a ruckus making.
Weird, no? I was having a hard time with these adjectival phrases, particularly ones that start with an article, so that there are two articles next to each other, thus:
The the blue car neighboring red car its parking space leaving is.
Or, as you might say in English syntax:
The red car neighboring the blue car is leaving its parking space.
For the first few patent translations, I was completely stupefied by sentences like this, until one day when I had a Eureka moment and my brain suddenly understood how to parse these jumbled sentences properly. It was like magic. Now I know what to look for when parsing sentences with adjectival phrases, but to me these are still the most difficult thing when translating German to English.

And now that you've seen what some of German syntax looks like, maybe you'll understand when I tell you I'm not completely fluent in the language in which I majored.

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Zac said...

Döner Kebab, with everything, to take-with, yes?

I've actually seen adjectival phrases used heavily in English. I thought it was a quirk of geek culture, but it may be the fact it's an English-language web community with a sizable Euro membership.

Sra said...

Yep, that's right. Interesting that you've seen adjectival phrases in your geek boards. I venture your European theory is likely. Maybe if we saw it more regularly in English, the translating would go easier.

Claire said...

I can get on board with the European-influenced, adjectival phrase-laden boards. I've seen it myself, and while I am a language nerd of the first (or at least secondish) order, I think that examining the way others create sentences in your own language gives one an excellent understanding of how they construct them in theirs.

I'm forever encountering this in Spanish as well, although it's more about modifier placement than a love of adjectives (typical of Romance languages).

Because I'm Hispanic and live in podunk, I often receive sales calls and questions from Mexico, despite the fact that I am not in sales or customer service. I'm fluent in Spanish, but not technical or business Spanish, which leads to comments I hear as:

"Yes, I need to know if your company's NONSENSE is compatible with the GIBBERISH AND FOLDEROL, or if I need to get a converter in order to PERFORM AN ACTION THAT MAKES NO SENSE CONTEXTUALLY."

This is why I have our Mexico sales staff on speed dial.

heidikins said...

...Ich bin blonde, bitte sprechen sie langsam.

That's about all the German I really remember. ;o)


Sra said...

Claire: So now when I speak German with English syntax, I'll just chalk it up to being informative cross-culturally. Ha!

Heidikins: A very useful sentence indeed.

Erin said...

Chinese word order is funky, too.

For example, "I'm going to the drug store with the big condoms" would be "I to the has-big-condoms drugstore go."

Very Yoda.

heidikins said...

...Ich bin blonde, bitte sprechen sie langsam.

That's about all the German I really remember. ;o)


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