Reflections on Translation

A series of blog posts covering aspects of the translation process and the translation industry, literature, linguistics and writing.


The Language of Covid-19 

By Andrew Lord

December 6, 2021

This blog post looks at the language of Covid-19 and in particular the neologisms, which are newly coined words or expressions and portmanteaus, which are words formed by combining two other words.

A recent Webinar by the Oxford English Dictionary looked at the language of Covid-19. It shows how social change brings about language change. New words added to the OED in April 2020 included: self-isolate, shelter in place (both a verb and a noun), social distancing and self-quarantine.

The OED also highlights how meaning changes: PPE was previously understood at Philosophy, Politics and Economics, a course of study at Oxford University, but now it is more widely understood to mean personal protective (or protection) equipment.

The webinar presented a gradual shift in meaning. Previously an elbow bump would mean a blow using the elbow or a blow to the elbow, but now an additional meaning has been added: a gesture of greeting where two people tap their elbows together instead of shaking hands or embracing, in order to reduce the risk of spreading an infectious disease.

The origins of the words mentioned earlier are older than you might expect: for example, self-isolate (1925), self-isolated (1837) and the verb and noun “shelter in place” (1976). Another expression we have heard countless times is “new normal.” It describes the state an economy or society settles following a crisis. However, the term actually dates back to 1918 and was coined by the American inventor Henry Alexander Wise Wood to describe the aftermath of World War I.

Trish Stewart, the OED Science Editor, highlighted three areas for words added to the OED: the April 2020 update related to words associated with the social and economic impact of Covid-19, the July 2020 update focused on words relating to the virus, its effects and potential treatment, and there is also the increased use of scientific terminology in the media. This includes terms such as the “R number” and community transmission or community spread.

The OED Editor Kate Wild highlighted the corpus analysis for Covid-19 updates and provided corpus keywords from January to July 2020. A corpus refers to a collection of written or spoken material in machine-readable form which is collected in order to study linguistic structures and frequencies. The Oxford Monitor Corpus of English contains over 10 billion words of web-based news content from 2017 to the present.

The corpus allows us to see the various stages of Covid-19, the reactions to it and the words which reflected these developments in the first seven months of 2020:

  • In January, as the first reports of Covid-19 emerged, the corpus included the words coronavirus, SARS and virus.
  • By February, as Covid-19 began to quickly spread and the seriousness of the virus became widely known, this was joined by Covid-19, quarantine, pandemic and epicentre.
  • In March, as the full extent of Covid-19 became known and many governments across the globe reacted to it, we see the words distancing, self-isolate, lockdown and ventilator in the corpus.
  • In April, as precautions to combat Covid-19 became known, the corpus included PPE, stay-at-home and furlough.
  • In June, the words connected to Covid-19 were joined in the corpus by other terms which reflected on the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis and the worldwide reaction to his death. The corpus included defund, Juneteenth, brutality, anti-racism, Confederate, looting and kneel.
  • By July 2020, as it became clear the Covid-19 is an airborne virus which can spread from an infected person's mouth or nose in small liquid particles when they cough, sneeze, speak, sing or breathe, words such as mask, mask-wearing and distance featured in the corpus.

This highlights the fluidity of language. All of a sudden, words and phrases can be on everybody’s lips and all over the media.

The Oxford Monitor Corpus only includes one neologism: Covid-19. But there is a large number of neologisms and portmanteaus related to Covid-19. Tony Thorne, a Language Consultant in the Modern Language Centre at King’s College London, has created a “Lockdown Lexicon, Covidictionary, Glossary of Coronacoinages” on his blog which includes words describing the new realities such as “viral anxiety”, which was coined by the New Statesman and describes fear and uncertainty, sometimes excessive, due to the COVID-19 outbreak and its ramifications. Nicknames and slang, as well as inappropriate terms such as “Lockdown Stasi”, which predictably appeared in the Daily Mail.

Furthermore, “The China virus”, was used by Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, on countless occasions. Trump also referred to the Coronavirus as “kung flu”. These derogatory terms quite possibly led to new variants being designated by letters of the Greek alphabet, which brings us to another little-known word which is now on everybody’s lips – Omicron.

If you are unfortunate enough to fall down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole, particularly on Twitter, you are highly likely to come across portmanteaus such as plandemic, which combines the words plan and pandemic and posits that Covid-19 was part of a global conspiracy. In turn, conspiracy theorists are often described as “Covidiots”, a term which frequently trends in the UK on Twitter.

There are other terms which can be viewed at best as insensitive and at worst insulting. The UK government, enthusiastically supported by the UK tabloid press, announced “Freedom Day” on 19 July 2021, which meant legal requirements on social distancing and wearing masks in public places would end in England despite 46,900 cases being recorded on that date and at that time a total of 155,301 people in the UK had died with COVID-19 on the death certificate. 

The phrase “learn to live with the virus” is equally inconsiderate in view of the high number of Covid deaths in the UK and the fact that the end of mandates on social distancing and mask wearing has meant that if you are CEV (clinically extremely vulnerable), you are forced to shield as you are at higher risk from severe COVID-19. The phrase is particularly complacent when you consider that new variants can emerge at any time and are predicted to do so in the future. If “learning to live with the virus” is a synonym for “ignoring the virus”, the result will be further waves and further deaths in the United Kingdom.

Similarly, in the UK the government and the media have used the term “restrictions” to describe mask wearing mandates. This is despite the fact that it has been scientifically proven that masks reduce the spread of Covid-19. Perhaps a better term would have been "preventative measures" or "health measures." Using a negative word to describe preventative measures is particularly perfidious when it refers to mask wearing, which is a cheap and effective way to protect yourself during an infectious respiratory disease pandemic.

In the UK we have also seen the portmanteau pingdemic, a combination of pandemic and ping, to describe a notification by the NHS Covid-19 app on mobile phones, which informed people that they had been in close contact with someone who has tested positive and that they must now self-isolate. This particular portmanteau appeared extensively in the UK press and on television and the negative effect was that many people delete the NHS Covid-19 app to avoid being “pinged.”

We can clearly see how social change results in language change as new words, neologisms and portmanteaus are created and old terms take on a new meaning.


You Are What You Read Part II

By Andrew Lord

December 3, 2021

In 1825, the French lawyer, politician and gastronome Jean Brillat-Savarin wrote: “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es” which translates as “tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.”

For translators, the phrase could be modified to “tell me what you read and I will tell you what you are.”

This can be illustrated from my own experience. I am a subscriber to the New York Times (you may recognise the font) and it has considerably improved my writing and vocabulary. It stands to reason that reading the work of the finest journalists will have a beneficial effect on your own writing. I start every day by reading five or six New York Times articles. My main topics of interest are US politics, UK politics, culture, socioeconomics and health. Nevertheless, other articles will often attract my attention. A recent article about a London synagogue was extremely helpful during a translation project which included texts about synagogues and Jewish life in Germany during the 1400s.

Translation projects I have worked on include legal topics such as GDPR (the General Data Protection Regulation), which require a certain level of research into the subject. Journalists work on the same basis, they research articles and achieve a level of expertise in the topic under consideration. 

It is self-evident that linguists will frequently be surprised by a new word or phrase. This phenomenon does not only affect translators. I first became familiar with the German language in 1995 and only the most presumptuous of language learners would claim to have mastered a language, even after a period of 26 years. In this respect, it is also important to have good reading habits in order to expand vocabulary and areas of expertise. There is a wide range of quality German broadsheets. My personal choice is Die Zeit, but the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Süddeutsche Zeitung also come highly recommended.

In the same way as a reader of quality newspapers will encounter new words on a daily basis, a language learner, and in particular a translator, will constantly be faced with unfamiliar words. This is especially the case when translating technical, architectural and historical texts.

On such occasions, it can be extremely advantageous to read high-quality articles on a wide-range of topics. Or as Jean Brillat-Savarin might have put it: “tell me what you read and I will tell you what you are.”


Blood is thicker than water

By Andrew Lord

November 28, 2021

I was recently watching a YouTube video by the American clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula and she mentioned the phrase “blood is thicker than water.” She pointed out that the proverb was originally German (Blut ist dicker als Wasser). This obviously piqued my interest and is just the sort of rabbit hole I like to explore.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the saying as being “said to emphasize that you believe that family connections are always more important than other types of relationship”, but, as Sarah Löwe points out in an article in the German magazine Focus, the actual meaning of "Blut ist dicker als Wasser" is actually misunderstood.

In German, as in English, the phrase is nowadays used in the vernacular to say that blood relatives feel connected to each other to a greater degree than people related by marriage. Therefore, blood relatives have precedence over non-blood-relatives and friends.

Löwe points out that the phrase originated during the days of the Old Testament (from around 250 BC). Blood is thicker than water originally referred to a contract which was sealed with the blood of an animal. Water was only used during a baptism or the birth of a child. Therefore, the actual saying is “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”.

The phrase appeared in "Reinhart Fuchs" (Reynard the Fox) written by Heinrich der Glîchezære in the 12th century as "Kin-blood is not spoilt by water", while the English equivalent subsequently appeared in works by Sir Walter Scott (in his novel Guy Mannering, Scott writes: "Weel - Blud's thicker than water - she's welcome to the cheeses." and Thomas Hughes. 

Further examples of etymology, the study of the origin of words and the way meanings have changed throughout history, will appear as I find them!


On Writing Part I

By Andrew Lord

November 24, 2021

It is no coincidence that my series of blog posts entitled “On Writing” share the name of a collection of letters written by Charles Bukowski. Bukowski talks about the writing process and the struggles involved in the writing profession. The letters featured in the book “On Writing” chart his journey from struggling writer and poet to the successful author of novels Post Office (1971), Factotum (1975), Women (1978), Ham on Rye (1982), Hollywood (1989) and Pulp (1994) along with countless poetry collections and story collections such as Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969) and Tales of Ordinary Madness (1983).

Bukowski's writing can be described as transgressive fiction, as outlined in my blog post "You Are What You Read Part I." As with other examples of transgressive fiction such as American Psycho and Last Exit to Brooklyn, Bukowski's works are in part shocking and hilarious. His writing style is austere. Roddy Doyle has described the writing as being awkward and close to speech. The Bukowski biographer Howard Sounes describes the writing in the first two novels Post Office and Factotum as containing a "concurrent edginess" and "a real sense of desperation." The author Niall Griffiths describes Bukowski's novels as "messy, ramshackle, [...] held together it seems, by bits of sellotape and string." Though he does go on to say that it would miss the point of the works of Bukowski to judge them with the tools of formal literary appreciation. Without the chaos, Bukowski's works would lose their value and charm. 

Henry Charles "Hank" Chinaski appears in five of Bukowsi's novels and plays the role of alter ego and antihero in a literary representation of Bukowski's life. Post Office begins with the words "It began as a mistake." The mistake being his decision, or rather that of Hank Chinaski, to take up a position with the U.S. Postal Service. This mistake leads to career as a postal worker that lasts for eleven years. This also included a long period of time sorting mail in a sitting position. Before Chinaski quits his job, he considers the effect of 11 years working for the postal service with a critique of the capitalist system:

"11 years shot through the head. I had seen the job eat men up. They seemed to melt. [...] When I first came in, Jimmy had been a well-built guy in a white T shirt. Now he was gone. [...] He was too tired to get a haircut and had worn the same part of pants for 3 years. [...] They had murdered him. He was 55. He had 7 years to go until retirement.

'I'll never make it,' he told me."

During the years before the appearance of his first novels, the letters sent by Charles Bukowski on December 13, 1959 show how is he struggling. He wrote to James Boyer May that he has made

“$47 in 20 years of writing and I think that $2 a year (omitting stamps, paper, envelopes, ribbons, divorces and typewriters) entitles one to the special privacy of a special insanity.”

On September 15, 1970, Bukowski was despondent as he wrote to Harold Norse:

“there’s nothing to write. […] it’s over. Of course, I land with poems, but you can’t pay rent with poems. I’m very down, that’s all. There’s nothing to write. No hope. No chance. Finis.”

He points out that Notes of a Dirty Old Man has been translated into German and the book had a favourable review in Der Spiegel, but despite this he is finding it difficult to continue writing. He has just received his first payment in two months, for just $50.

As the years advance, we discover that Bukowski is becoming more and more successful. Translations of his works sold particularly well in France and Germany. Bukowski was fifty-one when Post Office was published in 1971. In 1984, he wrote the semi-autobiographical screenplay for the film “Barfly”, which starred Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway. He wrote about his experiences of the screenwriting and film in his novel Hollywood in 1989.

In a letter to the publisher John Martin written on July 12, 1991, Bukowski mentions that he read Henry Miller gave up writing after becoming famous and comments that this probably meant he wrote to become famous. He expresses bewilderment as:

“there is nothing more magic and beautiful than lines forming across paper. It’s all there is. It’s all there ever was. No reward is greater than the doing. […] I can’t understand any writer who stops writing. It’s like taking your heart out and flushing it away with the turds. […] Now let me stop writing about this so that I can write about something else.”

On January 19, 1992, Bukowski writes to his publisher John Martin about his amazement that he has kept 18 of his books in print and they continue to sell.

“It’s strange to me and I’m proud of each book, the fact that they are still kicking and alive. […] as time goes on they seem to take on an extra flavor (I mean, the actual book titles) as if they had a way of their own.”

 In 1985, Bukowski looked back at his life as a writer and how he struggled to achieve commercial success:

“I had fear I could never make it as a writer, moneywise. Rent, child support. Food didn’t matter. I just drank and sat at the machine.”

He went on to say that he wrote Post Office, his first novel, in 19 nights. He was paid $10 for the column “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” and said that the ten dollars sometimes looked big. Bukowski was modest about his success commenting that

“the luck gradually mounted and I kept writing. […] What matters is that I didn’t die on that post office stool. Security? Security to what?”

One piece of advice from Charles Bukowski? “Do some living and get yourself a typewriter.” He worked as a dishwasher, truck driver, he worked in a warehouse and a gas station. The job he held for the longest period of time was as a postal clerk and carrier. He eventually turned his experiences working for the U.S. Postal Service into the novel Post Office.

The moral of the story is that you should never give up. Even if writing is just a hobby. Bukowski came late to writing, but he overcame disappointment and rejection to achieve commercial and literary success.


The Best Book Of The Past 125 Years Part I

By Andrew Lord

November 20, 2021

The New York Times is asking readers to vote for the best book of the past 125 years. From thousands of nominations submitted by readers, the editors at the New York Times Book Review have reduced the submissions to 25 books. The finalists include works such as 1984, Catch-22, The Catcher in the Rye, Charlotte’s Web, A Confederacy of Dunces, The Fellowship of the Ring, Gone With the Wind, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, The Handmaid’s Tale, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lolita, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Ulysses.

The New York Times Book Review first appeared on 10 October 1896 and this cut-off date means that the following books from my own personal top 10 do not qualify: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Frankenstein (1818), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Books subsequently removed from my top 25 as they were not published in the past 125 years include Wuthering Heights (1847), Diary of a Nobody (1892), Robinson Crusoe (1719) and The Turn of the Screw (1898).

This leaves me with the following top 10 books of the past 125 years, four of which are included in the New York Times Book Review list:

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962)

Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe (1987)

Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945)

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell (1914)

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

The three books I voted for in the New York Times Book Review list were The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird and Lolita. While the other seven books in my list are subject to change, these three are likely to always be amongst the top 3. I believe Catcher in the Rye is the best book of the past 125 years, but I think it is likely that To Kill a Mockingbird will garner the most votes. The result is due in December.


To Translate Or Not To Translate – German Loanwords

By Andrew Lord 

October 26, 2021

"The opposition are struggling to hide their schadenfreude as the political wunderkind is mired in scandal. Corruption has been a leitmotiv of his leadership, although at this moment in time any talk of a putsch is verboten. Nevertheless, the angst felt by the members of his party is tangible.

He finds himself in zugzwang and is enduring a period of Sturm und Drang. Quick action is required to avoid his own personal Götterdämmerung.

Insiders say the party would benefit from a new weltanschauung and a heavy dose of realpolitik. Whether the leader has the required fingerspitzengefühl to assuage the doubts of his backbenchers is another story. The zeitgeist has moved away from the strong, unyielding leaders of past decades and towards more inclusive figureheads."

This is an extreme, and entirely invented, example, but it does illustrate the issues involved in the translation of a German loanword or Wanderwort.

When should a loanword be used? Well, it all depends on the target audience. While loanwords such as “schadenfreude”, “wunderkind”, “angst” and “zeitgeist” are widely known and comprehended, German words such as “zugzwang” and “Weltanschauung” are less likely to be understood. You are most likely to see this type of German loanwords in political or historical articles.

German loanwords are able to encapsulate an idea or concept in a single word, so there is a temptation to use them. Fingerspitzengefühl means intuitive flair or instinct, but it goes further than that. The term describes great situational awareness, the ability to respond in an extremely appropriate and tactful manner. From a social or political perspective it can suggest tact, diplomacy or sensitivity to the viewpoints of others.

It is often worth considering alternatives. Wunderkind could be replaced by prodigy, Weltanschauung is adequately translated by worldview and a translation for Sturm und Drang is turmoil. Although in the latter, the original term does lose a great deal of its original meaning in translation. Again, if the context is a historical or political text, the loanword should be used. If in doubt, an explanation of the loanword could also be helpful in some contexts.

While German loanwords are not verboten in translation, an element of fingerspitzengefühl is required to avoid causing angst amongst your readers.

In a future blog post, I will look at the use of English loanwords in the German language.


The Invisibility Of The Translator

By Andrew Lord

September 24, 2021

The ultimate aim of a translator is to be invisible. Ideally there will be no evidence that you have played any part in the creation of a text. The translation of a tourism brochure, for example, can have more in common with copywriting than translating. Furthermore, the translation must observe the conventions of English-language tourism texts.

A literary translation requires creative translation or transcreation. An example of this is my translation of "Die Geschichte von der 1002. Nacht" - "The Tale of the 1002nd Night" by Joseph Roth. The translation was to be used as a dramatisation by the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), consequently creative translation was required to convey the intention, context, emotion and tone of the original text.

The invisibility of the translator does not just apply to creative texts. A legal translation must adhere to the conventions of legal texts in the native language. In my case, this is achieved through the study of law as part of my translation studies (Newcastle University) and media law during my journalism training (University of Central Lancashire) which involved the extensive study of legal texts.

A technical translation must also follow conventions. Research is a vital part of the translation process. Technical dictionaries can provide two or three alternatives to a German word, so it is essential to carry out research in order to identify the correct word. Nothing makes a translation more visible than the incorrect term being used. This would stand out like a sore thumb to technical specialists who read the translation. I will examine the research aspect of translation in a future blog post.

Some projects require a combination of different types of translation. In 2010, I translated the book “Experiencing Project Management. The book contained the experiences of 25 Siemens project managers. The target audience of the book was prospective project managers at Siemens, so the 50,000 word translation task combined storytelling and technical translation.

In this case, the invisibility of the translator was perhaps taken slightly too far for my liking. You will have to take me at my word because the book does not mention the name of the translator or even that the book is a translation!


Working From Home aka Groβer Lärm

By Andrew Lord

September 12, 2021

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a great deal of talk about working from home or its acronym WFH. Of course, some of us have been working from home for many years and the phrase often reminds me of "Groβer Lärm" or "Great Noise", a short story consisting of just 186 words written by Franz Kafka in 1912. It was originally a diary entry and was later published in a literary journal. Kafka was sensitive to noise and he had to contend with cramped living quarters which he shared with his parents, three sisters, a servant girl and various canaries.

The story elucidates all of the sources of noise that troubled Kafka: slamming doors, the closing of the oven in the kitchen, the removal of ashes from the stove, his father’s trailing robe, the mixture of loud and shrill voices along with the aforementioned canaries.

Contemporary distractions could be barking dogs, loud cars, neighbours practising musical instruments, annoying mobile phone calls, messages and notifications. In such cases it is important to avoid being distracted by external influences. Avoid time-wasting websites such as Twitter. Modern solutions would include putting your mobile phone on silent during working hours or taking a short break to concentrate on something else, such as your breathing or, as mentioned in a recent blog post, directing your attention to researching a difficult word during the translation process.

Anyone who works from home will share some of Kafka’s concerns and perhaps take solace in the knowledge that it did not hinder the creation of classic works or as Rudyard Kipling wrote in his poem “If” - “If you can keep your head when all about you, Are losing theirs…”

I will provide a more detailed analysis and a translation of Groβer Lärm in future blog posts.


The Unsung Hero Of Translation

By Andrew Lord

August 21, 2021

Research is an essential element of translation, but the extent of this research is often overlooked. A translator is generally paid by the word and a single word can sometimes require extensive research. However, embarking on a long search interrupts the translation flow and it is simply not practical to spend up to 30 minutes researching a single word.

Fortunately, I have an assistant for such searches. I can continue working on the translation while the research takes place in the background. The search involves pouring over specialist dictionaries for possible options, an analysis of the term and finding examples of the word used in the source language. The Duden dictionary is a useful resource to examine the precise definition of the word with various examples and synonyms. However, there is the risk that synonyms take you too far away from the original term.

Subsequently, it is often necessary to examine texts and documents in order to find examples of the term used in a variety of contexts. This can often be the key to discovering the correct English equivalent. A research assistant is often the unsung hero of the translation process. Each word has the same monetary value, but some terms are much harder to find than others.

There are ways to pre-empt extensive research. One option is to build a level of knowledge in a chosen topic. For example, the website My Jewish Learning is an excellent resource for Judaism and Jewish life. The daily newsletter provides information about Jewish food, history, beliefs and practices and became invaluable during a translation project about Jewish history in Germany. When time is of the essence, it is extremely helpful if you already know what is meant by a menorah, mikveh or kehilla. In the same way as a journalist researches a topic, a translator can build their knowledge on a subject.

Building research resources is really an extension of the ideas presented in my blog post “You Are What You Read”. If you are able to acquire knowledge on a range of subjects through reading quality newspapers or, in the aforementioned example, via access to authoritative resources.

Research can also include watching documentaries. Often a visual aid can provide the answer to a tricky term in an architectural translation while a historical documentary can present you with a new perspective. If you do not have access to foreign channels via satellite TV, there is a wealth of high-quality documentaries on German catch-up TV channels such as ARD and ZDF or YouTube.

Research is an essential element of translation, but with the right preparation and an inquisitive mind, it is possible to reduce the amount of research required in the translation process.


Geschäft ist Geschäft by Heinrich Böll

By Andrew Lord

August 11, 2021

Heinrich Böll wrote the short story Geschäft ist Geschäft (Business is Business) in 1948. The story is about a man who has recently returned from the war and is struggling to come to terms with life in post-war Germany. This blog post will look at aspects of translating the short story and include a critical analysis.

Geschäft ist Geschäft, and another short story written by Böll entitled An der Brücke (At the Bridge) which will be the subject of a future blog post, are referred to as Trümmerliteratur or rubble literature which describes works set among the post-war ruins of Germany. The story covers a number of topics: World War II and its consequences, the situation of those returning home after the war, the reconstruction of Germany and adapting to a new reality. For Böll it was a matter of morality to describe the true reality of the war and the post-war period.

Böll uses the former black marketeer, known as Ernst, to juxtapose the life of the protagonist who is struggling with post-war life. At the very beginning of the story, we are told:

Mein Schwarzhändler ist jetzt erhlich geworden.
My black marketeer is an honest man these days.

We are immediately confronted by the word Schwarzhändler. From a translation perspective, we are aware that there was a black market during the war, but what is the correct term for someone who operated on the black market? Two options are black marketeer and black-market dealer. In this case, black marketeer is the lesser of two evils. The literal translation of “Mein Schwarzhändler ist jetzt erhlich geworden” is “my black marketeer has become honest” or “my black marketeer is now honest.” But a better translation would be “my black marketeer is an honest man these days.”

As illustrated by this phrase, Literary translation provides the opportunity for creative translation. Unlike technical or legal translations, which must be very close to the source text, literary translation enables the translator to use creativity to play with the meaning of words and convey the original meaning of the text while adapting the story to the literary conventions of the target language.

We learn that Ernst owns a wooden kiosk and sells cigarettes, lollipops, chocolate among other products. The protagonist, who remains nameless, is initially happy to see his old friend doing well and adjusting to life after the war. However, he is disappointed to see Ernst send away a small, scruffy girl with fierce insults because she wants to buy a lollipop but is 5 pfennigs short. It gets worse for the protagonist when he approaches Ernst and addresses him by his name, but the former black marketeer pretends he doesn’t know him.

Böll highlights the difference between the two former friends. The protagonist is unemployed, poor and ill. After paying his rent, he only has money for a few cigarettes and some bread, while Ernst looks splendid and confident and his cheeks:

Hatten jene Festigkeit, die nur von regelmässiger Fettzufuhr herrühren kann.
… had the firmness, that can only come with a regular fatty diet.

If we analyse this sentence from a translation perspective, particular attention must be paid to the word “Fettzufuhr” – this can mean “the consumption of fat”, but that would not work in this context as the translation would appear unnatural. Nobody would say “the consumption of fat” in an informal context, so an alternative is a “fatty diet.”

“Geld” or money is mentioned repeatedly in the story. Our protagonist tells us that ...

es ist schrecklich, nie Geld zu haben. Man muß einfach Geld haben. Man kommt nicht daran vorbei.
… it’s dreadful to never have money. You simply have to have money. There’s no way around it.

He later comments on the costs involved in post-war life, he is pestered by his landlady for rent and his smoking habit is frowned upon by her and society at large. We then encounter the metaphor of money disappearing out of the light bulb ...

und schon fließt das Geld oben aus der Birne heraus.
… and the money just flows out of the light bulb.

We eventually get to the crux of the matter: “Nerven” or nerves are referred to repeatedly. It is obvious that the nerves of the former soldier are shot. Perhaps he is suffering from shell shock. Today, we would talk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Our protagonist is stuck in a vicious circle, he is struggling with the after-effects of the war and is living in poverty. He tells us that he previously had ambitions to be a salesman, but he has lost all motivation. This apathy suggests he is depressed:

Ich rechne mir dann aus, wieviel Hunderttausend Arbeitstage sie an so einer Brücke bauen, oder an einem großen Haus, und ich denke daran, daß sie in einer einzigen Minute Brücke und Haus kaputtschmeißen können. Wozu da noch arbeiten?
I calculate how many hundred thousand working days are required to build a bridge or a large house and I think that they can smash a bridge or a house to smithereens in a single minute. So, what’s the point of working?

“Kaputtschmeißen” is a term worthy of discussion. It is a colloquial term for “destroy” and an equally informal term is required in the translation. I decided to use “smash to smithereens.”

Böll compares the past with the present in this story. We discover that in the past the protagonist and Ernst were both struggling and this created a feeling of solidarity between them. Ernst would give the protagonist cigarettes and in return he would receive bread ration coupons. But in the present, Ernst pretends that he doesn’t even know him.

Furthermore, we are told that during the war it was not important to learn a trade. It was essential that men became soldiers. But now, all of a sudden, it is necessary to have a trade. Anyone who does not have a trade is simply lazy. But the protagonist does not see why he should carry heavy stones or clear away rubble, just so another café can be built.

As the protagonist throws away a cigarette, he watches as a man collects the cigarette butt from the ground. He employs the metaphor of a spider to create the image of a man scuttling around on the floor:

Er hatte sein System, wie eine Spinne, die im Netz hockt, hatte er irgendwo in einem Trümmerhaufen sein Standquartier …
He had a system, like a spider perched on a web, he had his base somewhere in a heap of rubble…

The most powerful section of the story is about soldiers returning from the war. Böll uses a tram metaphor to describe former soldiers starting a new life in post-war Germany.

Und als wir nach Hause kamen, sind sie aus dem Krieg ausgestiegen wie aus einer Straßenbahn.
When we came home, they disembarked from the war as if they were getting off a tram.

The protagonist watches as others leave the tram at each stop. Many of these men had no problem adjusting to post-war life. As part of the metaphor, those who got off early did not even have to pay the fare:

… man ließ sich ein bißchen entnazisieren – so wie man zum Friseur geht, um den lästigen Bart abnehmen zu lassen…
… you underwent a bit of denazification in the same way you go to a barber to have an irksome beard removed…

The adjective “lästig” refers to something that is annoying or irritating. In this case, irksome is a good solution. Böll uses the adjective “lästig” to describe a beard that has been grown involuntarily, that is to say the beard has grown simply out of a lack of will to shave it off.

Those who got off the tram early were able to leave the war behind and, like Ernst, concentrate on acquiring wealth and status. Meanwhile, the others remained on the tram and waited for a stop that looked familiar to them, so they could risk getting off:

Manche fuhren noch ein Stück mit, aber sie sprangen auch bald irgendwo ab und taten jedenfalls so, als wenn sie am Ziel wären.
Some stayed on the tram, but they soon jumped off somewhere and acted as if they had reached their destination.

The tram continued to travel and in the next paragraph Böll uses long sentences containing short phrases separated by commas to create a feeling of anxiety in the reader. The paragraph consists of 148 words, but just three sentences. It reaches a crescendo as:

… die Endstation kam nicht, der Fahrpreis wurde immer teurer, das Tempo immer Schneller, die Kontrolleure immer mißtraurischer, wir sind eine äußerst verdächtige Sippschaft.
… the final stop never arrived, the fare became more and more expensive, the speed faster and faster, the ticket inspectors increasingly suspicious, we were an extremely dubious mob.

Those who got off early were able to take positions in the new society, while the others were outsiders who were unable to forget the past and adapt to the new reality. Böll’s social criticism is clear in this short story. He presents the winners and losers, the successful versus the outsiders of post-war Germany, this is illustrated by the comparison between Ernst and the protagonist. Through the first-person narrative, we identify with the protagonist and have empathy for his struggles.

After the war, the protagonist lived for a short period of time in a cellar, a living situation he describes as tolerable, but he was discovered and a journalist came and wrote a story about the plight of those returning home after the war. We are told a man from the housing department saw it as a matter of prestige that the protagonist took the offer of a flat. But we now discover that the rent for the flat has simply caused financial distress for the protagonist.

At the end of the story, the man who collects cigarette butts makes another appearance. We are told that people waiting for the tram do not like to see people doing such things:

Es wäre ihnen lieber, es gäbe das nicht, aber es gibt es …
They would prefer that it didn’t exist, but it does …

We are also reminded that at the beginning of the story, Ernst had chased away a little girl who wanted to buy a lollipop but was 5 pfennigs short. It ends stating that, after all, in the German post-war society “Geschäft ist Geschäft” or business is business.

A translation of Geschäft ist Geschäft will appear in a future blog post.


You Are What You Read Part I

By Andrew Lord

August 11, 2021

I have four main areas of literary interest: Russian literature, German literature, late 19th - early 20th century literature and transgressive fiction. I would like to talk about my favourite novels and works that have inspired me (no spoilers!).

My love of Russian literature began with Nikolai Gogol, I was particularly drawn by the surrealism and the grotesque of works such as Diary of a Madman (1835), The Nose (1836) and The Overcoat (1842), but also the humour and absurdity of his works.

Indeed, it was Fyodor Dostoyevsky who once said “We have all come from under The Overcoat.” Along with Gogol, Dostoyevsky is the Russian author I have read most, this includes novels such as The House of the Dead (1862), Notes from the Underground (1864), Crime and Punishment (1866), The Gambler (1867) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880).

As far as German literature is concerned, Heinrich Böll is one of my favourites and it is his short story Geschäft ist Geschäft or Business is Business (1948) that has left the greatest impression on me. The story is about a man who has recently returned from the war and is struggling to come to terms with life. The section about people returning from the war is very powerful, the protagonist watches as the former soldiers leave the underground train stop by stop until he is eventually the only one left. This is a metaphor for people starting a new life after the war. I will analyse Geschäft ist Geschäft by Heinrich Böll in a future blog post and provide a translation of the story before the end of the year.

Although he was not German, Kafka was a German-speaking Bohemian who wrote in German. I will talk about his short story Groβer Lärm (1912) in a future blog post. Die Verwandlung (1915) and Der Prozess (1925) both highlight the definition of “Kafkaesque” which Merriam-Webster explains as a “nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.” In the former, the protagonist Gregor Samsa undergoes a metamorphosis (also the title of the story in the English translation), while in the latter, the protagonist Josef K. is arrested and prosecuted for an unknown offence.

Late 19th – early 20th century literature is a particular interest of mine. The period covers a wealth of classic works by authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, who not only wrote the Sherlock Holmes series of books, but also The Lost World (1912).

The period covers works from the humorous such as Diary of a Nobody (1892) by George and Weedon Grossmith and Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1889) to the enchanting, exemplified by Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908) and moving, such as Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children (1906).

It also includes works with Gothic elements (that is to say, the sinister, grotesque or mysterious), such as The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James, classics by Robert Louis Stevenson such as The Body Snatcher (1884) and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and a series of H. G. Wells classics, such as The Time Machine (1895) The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) The Invisible Man (1897) The War of the Worlds (1898) and Wells’ social commentary novels Kipps (1905) and The History of Mr Polly (1910). The period also includes Lord Arthur Savile's Crime (1887) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) by Oscar Wilde.

Transgressive fiction is also a passion of mine. defines the genre as “literature in which orthodox moral, social, and artistic boundaries are challenged by the representation of unconventional behaviour and the use of experimental forms.”

Therefore, transgressive fiction is often not for the faint hearted. It can take the form of works such as Post Office (1971) by Charles Bukowski and includes novels which have caused great controversy such as Junky (1953) and Naked Lunch (1959) by William S. Burroughs, Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov, Last Exit to Brooklyn (1966) by Hubert Selby Jr. and American Psycho (1991) by Bret Easton Ellis.

Transgressive novels can be both outrageous and outrageously funny. For example, Patrick Bateman, the Wall Street banker and protagonist of American Psycho, tells us he is into “murders and executions” as opposed to mergers and acquisitions. Amongst the violence, Ellis provides a biting satire of the 1980s, in particular capitalist consumption.

However, literary genres do not exist in a vacuum. Gogol’s works are inherently transgressive. Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, is a transgressive figure. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) by Oscar Wilde could also be described as containing transgressive elements. Indeed, similarities exist between the latter and American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, which was published 100 years later.

A translator, or indeed any writer, does not exist in a vacuum. We are all influenced and inspired through our reading habits. In a future blog post “You Are What You Read II”, I will talk about how reading quality newspapers, such as the New York Times, have had a positive influence on my own writing.

Although the majority of my blog posts will be about aspects of the translation process, I will also discuss literature and will examine these works in greater depth, especially when I encounter aspects related to translation or proofreading.