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Parsing words is a terrible idea June 23, 2008

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Random musings, Translation Sites.
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I have somehow become the go-to person for the daughter of one of my NOTA members who is doing an internship in Germany. She has asked me questions that have stumped her for the past couple days now. I don’t mind an occasional question, but lists of questions and e-mails every day are a no-no. Anyway, she wrote me today asking about the term “Wirtschaftspate.” I didn’t really have time to get into it, so I told her to ask her co-workers. She instead asked her professor at OSU, who told her:

For future references [sic], get in the habit of parsing words, i.e., isolating the stem of the words and the various components that make up an entity. Wirtschaftspate = Der Pate = godfather, hence, the godfather of economy. It’s actually quite common to hear the word ‘Pate‘ in German when referring to someone really important or someone whose opinion and approval means much. Hence, translating it as ‘the godfather of economy’ makes full sense and it’s something that’s featured in other languages as well.

I couldn’t disagree more!

After doing a quick Google search for “godfather of the economy” I responded to her that this was not at all a common phrase. In fact, it only got one hit – in reference to someone becoming the godfather of the economy minister’s child. Why do people insist on simply breaking down words in German and then come up with an inelegant solution that sounds wooden and at worst translated?

Parsing words is not a good idea at all and is the sign of a inexperienced translator. I used to parse words before I went to Kent State University and lived in Germany for a while. It is better to find an equivalent meaning than to parse words. Read the sentence and decide how the word fits in the sentence. In this case, he is getting an award for his dedication in offering his experience and know-how to an economic campaign. The movie “The Godfather” (Der Pate) has nothing to do with it.

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Comments»

1. RobinB - June 23, 2008

OK, I agree, don’t parse the words. They rarely add up in German. But please, please, encourage the students to parse the sentences!!!! That way, they have a fighting chance of identifying the subject, the object, and even the verb in the German sentence. And if they’re particularly bright, they might even get in the habit of noticing that singular nouns tend to relate to singular verbs, and plural nouns with plural verbs. And noticing those funny little clues that German offers the attentive reader, like adjectival endings. Don’t students learn about German adjectival endings any more? You know, the ones given in those dead simple tables in Hammer’s Grammar.

Mind you, I suppose that with professors like that, it’s a miracle that the students manage to string together a sentence – any sentence – of coherent German.

2. jillsommer - June 23, 2008

Hi Robin,
You are absolutely correct. I know studying German improved my English as well, because although I learned to diagram sentences in English class I didn’t truly understand the differences between adverbial and prepositional phrases or dative and accusative until I studied German. In fact, I find myself diagramming sentences in my head when I translate just to make sure I haven’t left anything out. Thanks for the chuckle. Your input always makes me smile.


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