Archives for posts with tag: German

Google Translate is really rather good. At least it’s what I assume is Google Translate. I generally search for ‘german english dictionary’ in the Chrome browser window and it brings in the german text-input box and the English translate counterpart box within the search return page.

I used to think it was a bit ropey, but it seems to be really good these days. I’ve been using it lately in reverse to establish the German words for certain English packaging and label words and phrases, and the dynamic way it adapts its translation to context the more you type in is really impressive. I have a passing, touristic knowledge of German and I can use my dangerous knowledge to make sure I’m conveying the right sense by using the translator in both directions.

The other day I received an email in German from a company. Written German is very formal, quite stilted and stuffy and in my opinion way more formal than its English counterpart. To this writer the German was impenetrable. I pasted the German sentences one-by-one into Google Translate and the resulting English wasn’t simply sufficient, it was superb.

Unless you have a need for super technical translations, or the stakes are very high indeed, I don’t know why you’d go to a translation company for their machine learning or even their human translation services any more.

Bloody Google. It will end up disintermediating us all if we’re not careful…

I have a friend – it’s true I tell you – who’s from Germany. His German is flawless, as you might expect, and his English is better than fluent. The one area he struggles with is This and That.

Note that I’m not talking about my favourite shop of the year in 2013, which luxuriates in the same name.

You see, there’s one German word – dieser/diese/dieses depending on the gender of the noun – to signify this and that, so they’ve never had to make the distinction, which is a problem where they communicate in those languages that do make the distinction.

The way I explain it is that it’s a question of distance, geographically and temporally. We use ‘this’ if it’s near to us, we use ‘that’ when it’s far, relatively speaking.

A couple of examples will suffice:

Customer: I want that apple please [pointing], the one there.

Grocer: What, this one here [picking it up]?

Customer: Yes please.


That was good [past tense, further away], but this is better [present tense, near].

Germans have no issue with here and there, because they have different words, hier and da. Drawing a parallel between how they should use this and that, with how they already use here and there, helps them out considerably. Next time you hear a German making this mistake, it could be your good deed for the day to put them right :-).

Those of you for whom English is a first language will know the challenges of wrestling with your maiden second language, because the chances are it embraces the whole new world of gender. We speakers of English only really come across gender in words like waiter/waitress, actor/actress and master/mistress.

To my mind this is just a vocab thing, since our pronouns – ‘the’, ‘a’ and so on – and adjectives – big, small, you know the deal – don’t have to ‘agree’ with the noun – tree, house, stop me if I’m going too slowly here. Besides, our US friends have largely abandoned the female forms of these words anyway.

Your romance languages introduce the notion of gender as reflected in the noun, like le fils, la fille, and in any adjectives or verb parts related to those nouns, as in Il a sauvé la petite fille blessée – he saved the little injured girl. Sorry, a bit macabre, but all I think of on the hoof. Then there’s German, not content with 2 genders, which introduces the 3rd gender of neuter, not to be confused with a recent German initiative to introduce a 3rd gender for humans – and don’t ask me how your adjectives and verbal adjectives are going to deal with that conundrum.

Remembering and using the right genders with the tens of thousands of words in the language is a tall order even for those schooled in it from birth, never mind us folks shambling through a sentence or two in the hope we get served the right drink, meal or hotel room. As a case in point, I offer you the German for knife, fork and spoon.

Now knife, fork and spoon for me fall into a natural notional group – eating implements.  So in the interests of facilitating the speaking of the language they should all have the same gender signifier in my view. Is that the case in practice? No. Far too easy.

Knife is Das Messer, neuter. Fork is Die Gabel, feminine. Spoon is Der Löffel, masculine. Go figure. You see, it appears that German doesn’t follow a natural ‘genderising’ process for its words. For example, ‘Wo ist das Mädchen? Es ist sehr klein’. ‘Where is the girl? She is very little.’ The word for girl is neuter, hence the words Das, Es – which also means it – and the neuter adjective klein. As a poor speaker of German, I’m indebted to this book for putting me right on this vexing topic.

Tricky one, huh? It almost militates against the natural growth of the language. At least we don’t have to worry too much in a world governed – for now – by business Americanish.