Earlier this month, I said a temporary farewell to the TEC office and headed across the ocean. One of the stops on my two-week European journey was southern Germany, where much of my family still resides.
In some ways German could be called my first language, but in reality it’s not entirely clear. As a toddler I mostly spoke a language that my bilingual parents referred to as “Quatsch”—a German word essentially meaning “nonsense.” Basically, I mashed up German and English into horrific sentences that would be unacceptable in either language. (For example, on complaining about a bunch of noisy birds, I once remarked, “Die birdies haben so ge-tweeted!” My family won’t let me forget that.)
Unfortunately, I quickly abandoned the German language upon entering the Canadian school system. Nowadays my German hangs around semi-dejectedly in the back of my brain, though occasionally I still have to ask, “How do you say that in English?”—there are some things in the world that only the Germans ever thought to name (Schadenfreude, anyone?). But for someone who picks at grammar and spelling for a living, my skills in German are woefully amateur.
When speaking with my German relatives, I generally understand about 90% of what they say. Usually I get the gist well enough without the other 10%, so I’ll often just respond with “okay” even though I don’t understand 100% of what I’m okaying. This is not necessarily a good idea.
For example, during my visit this month, my great-uncle—after a day spent amiably berating me over how long it had been since my last visit—said to me, “When you visit us next time, you can come see us in Friedhof!” My brain-translation engine temporarily failed me there; I assumed he was referring to some other town in the area and said “Okay, sure!” And then, seconds later, it suddenly occurred to me that “Friedhof” actually means “cemetery.”
I should probably not have agreed to that.
The reduction one undergoes when they speak a language they’re not sure of can be extremely demoralizing. In English, I fixate on the clarity and precision of the things I say; in German, I struggle to even find the right words, and in the process I start to feel like a little kid again. It’s frustrating to have a meaning in your head and not be able to let it out!
Editing in Translation
I think that my attempts to communicate in German have given me some insight into what it’s like to be at the other side of the editing table—to be the one who needs to be corrected! English has always come naturally to me, but a short trip to Germany reminds me of the need to be gentle when correcting others—and of how important precision is when it comes to saying what you want to say.
Translated works often come to The Editing Company, as do works by non-native English speakers, and these are some of my favourite projects to work on. It’s fascinating to see what the authors preserve from their original languages in these texts. When you edit a lot of texts from the same source language, you start to see some fascinating patterns in the structure and cadence of the words. There’s an interesting art to translation that I can only marvel at from the outside.
I’m glad I know what I know about speaking another language. Even if my German skills aren’t perfect, I hope they’ll keep helping me to frame my work when I edit translations in the future. At the very least, they’ll keep giving my relatives something to laugh at.