Ger<>Eng-specific Translation Challenges: Negation

September 22, 2016

“All of our blog posts have no in-depth discussions about grammar.” What is wrong with this sentence?   Read on to find out!

In my capacity as a grader for the German-to-English ATA certification exam, as an instructor of German translation at Bellevue College, and as an editor and proofreader of countless translations that go through our office, I see a wide variety of texts translated by a wide variety of translators. Over the years, I have worked on identifying and compiling a list of many of the common areas for error in German<>English translation that can trip up even the most well-trained and seasoned translators. As we all know, being a good translator requires more than just being fluent in both the source and the target languages. In particular, it requires good “transfer” skills. Awareness of these translation-specific, language-specific challenges and mastery of the relevant transfer strategies can turn a good translation into an excellent one. In this Translation Challenges Series, I hope (“hope” being the pivotal word here) to contribute a number of posts to this blog about some of the specific challenges we face as German<>English translators, and the solutions we have for dealing with them. This post will focus on some of the different forms of negation used in German and English, and some options we have for translating them properly and idiomatically.

Take, for example, this sentence from a technical text: “Alle nachfolgenden Stufen zeigten keine Auffälligkeiten.” When translating it into English, if we stick too closely to the German structures, we end up with “All of the subsequent steps showed no anomalies.” This, of course, makes sense in English, but it is somewhat confusing and unidiomatic. It would be more common in English to express this as “None of the subsequent steps showed any anomalies.” So while in German we have “All showed no,” in English we have “none showed any.”

Here are some more examples of the translation of German negation into English:

Die Abweichung hat keinen Einfluss auf das Prüfergebnis.
Instead of: The deviation has no impact on the test results.
Try: The deviation does not have any impact on the test results.

Dieser Schritt wird nur abgearbeitet, wenn keine weitere Equilibrierung durchgeführt wird.
Instead of: Perform this step only if no further equilibration will be conducted.
Or: Only perform this step if another equilibration will be conducted.
Try: Do not perform this step unless another equilibration will be conducted.

Weitere Auffälligkeiten konnten nicht festgestellt werden.
Instead of: Further anomalies could not be detected.
Try: No further anomalies could be detected.

Auch diese Probenahmestelle zeigte sich nicht als sehr geeignet für diese Überprüfung.
Instead of: This sampling site is also not particularly suitable for the test.
Try: This sampling site is not particularly suitable for the test either.

Alle anderen Chargen des Verpackungsauftrages sind nicht betroffen.
Instead of: All of the other batches of the packaging order are not affected.
Try: None of the other batches of the packaging order are affected.

Of course similar strategies for avoiding literal formulations and instead using the grammatical structures and syntax that are idiomatic in the target language also apply to translation from English into German. Whereas in English it is perfectly idiomatic to say “I don’t have time,” if we translate that literally into German we end up with: “Ich habe nicht Zeit” instead of “Ich habe keine Zeit.”

Often (but not always) we find that in English, it is more idiomatic to negate the verb and bring the negation (i.e., the important information) closer to the beginning of the sentence. However, in German it is often more idiomatic to negate the noun and allow the negation to happen towards the end of the sentence. This stands to reason, since in general, English tends to favor verbal constructions, whereas German tends to favor nominal ones, and English likes to put important information first, whereas German is comfortable (given its syntax) with having important information come at the very end of the sentence.

So just remember, if you always use the forms and structures that are idiomatic for your target language, all of your translations will never be bad!

–Maia Costa