German Society Translators' Workshop, Berlin

Event report

For this year’s workshop the German Society returned to the Sorat Ambassador hotel in Berlin. Once again, the participants and speakers (21 in total) were well-looked after, and although the venue is near major tourist attractions (you can even see Berlin’s answer to Harrods, KaDeWe, from the hotel) the location itself is a quiet side street. Stephanie Tarling, the GS chair, opened the proceedings by greeting everyone and mentioning that the workshop is almost as old as the German Society itself, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year.

Our first speaker was Ilse Freiburg, who talked (in German) about “Internationale Befragungen – die Kunst, weltweit die richtigen Fragen richtig zu stellen.” Anyone who has ever filled in a survey or questionnaire will now be tempted to think that translating a few little questions can’t be that difficult. Far from it! International surveys are designed to gather comparable information from, for example, 45 different countries covering a wide geographical range. Every translator has their private thoughts about the quality of source texts from time to time, but the English questions that formed the starting point had obviously been formulated to be as non-country specific as possible and thus more readily comparable – but also vaguer. Working in a team of translators in order to arrive at the best solution for each question may seem like absolute luxury, but Ilse gave us some examples of where this is very useful.

A social survey, for example, asked respondents to indicate how far they trust their head of government. One translator rendered the concept literally and neutrally in German, one wrote Bundeskanzlerin – the workshop discussed which was better suited to the target audience and there was general agreement that “Chancellor” was much clearerto Joe Public; we were pleased to learn that the surveys’ makers had thought so too! A similar issue arose with Supreme Court – translated correctly in one case as Bundesgerichtshof and inaccurately as Bundesverfassungsgericht (constitutional court) in another. Interestingly, it emerged that the incorrect term had been selected, as most people in Germany would identify this court as the country’s most important and it was thus a better indicator of trust in the judicial system. Among other words which had produced headaches, this time in connection with workplace harassment, was “upset”, a versatile, deceptively easy word in English with no direct German equivalent (verärgert, betroffen, besorgt, belastet?) Varying sensibilities regarding ethnic origin also emerged. Whereas the English survey asked people to identify their “race or ethnicity”, the direct translation of race = Rasse is a big no-no in Germany, being too closely associated with Nazi ideologies. To get around this problem, Hautfarbe = skin colour was chosen. But in the English-speaking world, that would be considered an indelicate question. The time flew by and the lively debate it provoked carried into the coffee break.

The second topic was a talk by Christin Dallmann on arbitration, or Schiedsgerichtbarkeit, to give it the German title. Ms Dallmann is a trained lawyer and translator of legal texts. This talk (in German) offered crucial insights into the nature of arbitration in the framework of international and national law and provided, as one participant said, “some very useful vocabulary.” Christin explained that the parties have to agree to arbitration in the first place, but having done so, the arbitrator’s award is binding. The arrangement remains private unless one side feels impelled to turn to the national courts for execution. The original intention behind arbitration was to make resolving disputes cheaper, quicker and fairer by meeting in private and avoiding expensive legal fees. Frequently, each side will choose their own arbitrator, perhaps because of his/her specific expertise in a field like engineering, construction etc. and will agree on who the third arbitrator should be. There is no rule against having just one arbitrator. However, arbitration has had a very bad press recently and has been one reason continually cited by the opponents of CETA, the free-trade agreement between Canada and the EU. People fear that big business will take their cases to arbitration – by its very nature private and not public – and shady, secret dealings to the detriment of national governments and their citizens will be the result. However, CETA has adopted the 2014 UN convention on transparency in investor-state disputes. Art. 8.29 of CETA also states that the parties should strive to create a standing multilateral investment court with appeal options – something that is not normally part of arbitration. This was a fascinating exercise in separating facts from fiction, and a clarification of the differences between arbitration and hearing cases at public courts. It required considerable concentration, so lunch was a welcome break.

Dr Isabelle Thormann is a sworn reviewer of linguistic products, called upon to appraise in an official capacity the quality of for example texts, translations, language teaching or proof-reading services, and she had chosen to share some of her most spectacular/ interesting cases with us. Plunging straight into specifics, we looked at a legal dispute between a translation provider and a customer who was not satisfied with what he had received and was therefore unwilling to pay the full price. Many examples demanded specialist knowledge – which the translator had claimed to have – but confusing vegans with vegetarians or getting the decimal point wrong when stating the dosage are elementary mistakes that also reveal a lack of in-house quality control. On one occasion Isabelle was asked to help test the quality of the five biggest online translation agencies based in Germany. She wrote a 3-page letter, purportedly from a lawyer to his client, dealing with complicated legal, technical and business issues. Isabelle highlighted the particularly tricky parts and how the agencies had dealt with them. It was interesting to see that the agency that was rated best charged a price in the midrange of the fees demanded.

For light relief, we looked at some texts from profiling cases, i.e. judging how likely it was that a certain person was the author of a specific piece of anonymous writing. Some of them had highly original ideas on spelling! However, to arrive at an assessment of probable authorship or not, the reviewer has to look in detail at the mistakes of grammar, orthography etc. made in reference texts and the mistakes made in the anonymous letters. Modern technology complicates the issue by offering writers an automatic spell-checker! Finally, talking about commissions to assess the quality of proofreading services, Isabelle reminded us of how important a comma can be. Let’s never make the mistake of writing, “It’s time to eat granddad”.

The final speaker, Alexandra Jones (Sandy), talked about poetry translation, “A music of words”. A book of her own Gaelic poems, Crotal Ruadh / Red Lichen, with English translations, has just won second place in the Donald Meek Award 2016 for the Gaelic Book of the Year. For at least two of the participants this was the main motivation for attending the workshop. Sandy briefly introduced the philosophy of poetry translation, asking whether it is a betrayal of the original, given the constraints of form and the deliberate multi-layering or opacity of the original. A good translation, she concludes, will respect and reflect the original style, content, register and rhymes, both end and internal, making as few tasteful and well-judged compromises as possible. Herself an accomplished singer, Sandy feels strongly that the sound or music of the spoken word is too often sacrificed in translation. To demonstrate how well music and words complement each other, she sang a poem by Rilke “Das ist die Sehnsucht/This is longing” once in the original, and once in English translation – simply beautiful. It was new to many of us that Donald Swann – of Flanders and Swann fame – had composed melodies to texts that are a world totally apart from his famous Hippopotamus song. Sandy played an old recording of Swann singing another poem by Rilke and one of “Du bist die Ruh” (Rückert, music by Schubert) sung by Kathleen Ferrier.

Having just experienced how words and music fuse into a new artwork, it was our turn to show how well we’d done our “homework”. Ahead of the workshop we had received poems ranging from the intensely lyrical to classical to nonsense, and been invited to pick one or more and attempt a translation. Some poems were in English, some in German. The process of translation really underlined the difficulty of exactly rendering one language into another – stubborn rhymes, picking words that fit the metre but don’t sound quite right, or words that are right but won’t fit the metre. One young lady found a brilliant compromise and used an ab, ab rhyme scheme instead of the original aa, bb for her translation of an English poem into German. As several people remarked, this last session of the day really woke us all up again.

The general verdict on the event was, “So glad I came” and “really well organized.”

Everyone returned home with a host of new insights and impressions.


We can confirm the following speakers:

  • Richard Delaney FCIL CL: TBC re: legal translation
  • Ilse Freiburg: Internationale "Befragungen – die Kunst, weltweit die richtigen Fragen richtig zu stellen"
  • Alexandra Jones FCIL: Translating poetry
  • Isabelle Thormann MCIL CL: TBC re: her most spectacular court cases


The cost will be €55.00 for German Society and BDÜ members and €65 for non-members (this includes lunch as well as coffee/tea and water throughout the day). This is payable in advance and is non-refundable.


If you would like to attend, please send an email to the German Society Treasurer by no later than 30 September 2016 and you will be put on the list. You will then receive further details.


November 5th, 2016 10:00 AM   to   5:00 PM
B645, WC1X 8BG
United Kingdom
Events +
Category German Language Society
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German Society