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Comparing the German and English Translation of Turn in the River
Posted on Wednesday, September 19 @ 23:34:35 EDT
Topic: Literature

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a book of Andrey Dmitriev


Some differences in the German and English translation of Turn in the River by Andrey Dmitriev illuminate the possibilities and limitations of each language in their attempt to create an equivalent to the Russian original. The prevailing structure, composition and arrangement of German and English sentences accounts in part for a certain readily apparent similarity between the German and Russian texts. With a few exceptions, the overwhelming majority of aspects that allow for similarities between the source and terminal language are reserved for German and Russian. They include word order, clarity of relative pronouns, verschachtelte sentences (multiclause sentences), comma usage, acceptance of redundancy and form of expression. Consequently many differences in the proximity of the German and English translation to the original reveal less about interpretation and divergent opinions on the ability of a given language to assimilate the incongruities of the Russian than they illustrate the effect of concrete and commonly accepted grammatical rules on translation.

In the following article I will compare the German and English translation of Turn in the River by Andrey Dmitriev. Both translators have largely adhered to the so-called literal method of translation and consequently tried to convey the meaning and sense of the original to the greatest extent possible. The subject of this article is not the talent of the translator, but the linguistic structures and traditions she has at her disposal for creating an equivalent text in her native language. No attempt is made to analyze the quality or accuracy of any aspect of either translation. The translated texts are each viewed as a reflection of the linguistic laws governing expression in their respective languages and analyzed accordingly.

I. Word Order and Participles

In many ways, the word order and arrangement of a sentence in German and English are similar. It is possible to shift around prepositional clauses in the sentence, to place the object after the predicate or at the end of the sentence if a relative clause will be modifying it. Adverbs tend not to follow the verb in English, but they can be shifted around the sentence, as is possible in German as well. Nevertheless, despite these parallels and the ostensible flexibility of adverb placement in both languages, there is a rare instance where it is necessary to insert adverbs between an inverted subject and predicate in order to have the former modified by a relative clause. As we can see below, the German and Russian language permits the natural insertion of adverbs between the inverted subject and predicate, whereas in English it sounds so strange the translation was justified with a reference to Thomas Hardy:

- Кажется, ветер, - вкрадчиво, с вызовом и надеждой произносит мужчина в драповой куртке, которую он, садясь за стол, не пожелал снять. (244)

„Es scheint, daß Wind aufkommt“, sagt schmeichelnd, herausfordernd und hoffnungsvoll zugleich der Mann in der schweren Wolljacke, die er nicht hat ausziehen wollen, als er sich an den Tisch setzte. (36)

“It seems there’s some wind,” utters – ingratiatingly, defiantly and hopefully – the man in the thick wool jacket he had not wanted to take off as he sat down at the table.

The form of a German sentence allows the Russian adverbials to be placed naturally between the predicate and the subject, which is particularly convenient in this case where the relative clause modifies the jacket that is part of the man in the thick wool jacket. In English there is no common grammatical structure available to include all this information in one sentence. The only possibility sounds rather odd and is rarely encountered in English literature: …utters ingratiatingly, defiantly and hopefully the man in the thick wool jacket he had… Ultimately a slightly modified version (with hyphens setting off the adverbs) was preferable, but it does not sound nearly as natural in English as it does in the other two languages.
One often advantageous aspect of the German language is the clarity provided by the declination of the declarative pronoun and the inversion of the subject and verb. As in Russian, the role of the noun in German is often clear by the ending (of the noun itself in Russian and the declarative pronoun in German) The benefit the reader enjoys from this inversion is evident in the following example, the first sentence of Turn in the River:

По тесным бульварам центра, по дымным проездам заводского района, по запыленным проспектам окраины автобус ползет к городской черте… (227)

Über die engen Boulevards des Stadtzentrums, über die rauchgeschwängerten Nebenstraßen eines Industrieviertels, über die staubigen Vorortalleen kriecht der Bus brechend voll der Stadtgrenze zu… (9)

Down the narrow streets in the center, down the smoky avenues in the factory district, down the dust-covered roads in the outskirts, the bus creeps toward the city line…

The subject of the sentence is clear in Russian and German. Although an implausible reading, there is nothing from a grammatical point of view that enables the English reader to identify the bus instantly as the subject of the sentence, even if this becomes apparent with the next word. This minor difference offers a critical advantage to the fluidity of a reading, especially in complex texts with multiple clauses and innumerable sentences of this kind.
German grammatical rules also call for the subject to follow the predicate if a sentence begins with an adverbial. In Dmitriev’s prose a (literal) majority of the sentences do not begin with the subject. Sometimes the inversion merely increases the poetry of the clauses, even if the English rendition is perfectly understandable per se. We can see this in the continuation of this first paragraph with the bus:

долго ковыляет меж взрыхленных сухих полей; возле зверосовхоза избавляется от груды крикливых, распиравших его людских тел и, спасаясь от гнилого запаха норок, песцов и чернобурок, изнуренных рыбным кормом, летит, распахнутый и легкий, с разбойным ревом к горе... (227)

lange rumpelt er zwischen den aufgepflügten, trockenen Feldern; neben der staatlichen Pelztierfarm entledigt er sich eines Haufens laut schreiender Menschenleiber, und auf der Flucht vor dem fauligen Geruch der Nerze, der Polar- und Silberfüchse, die mit Fischfutter gequält werden, fliegt er, offentürig und leicht, mit wildem Motorgeheul auf den Berg zu… (9)

for a while it wobbles between the dry plowed fields; by the state fur farm it unloads the clamorous mass of human bodies about to push it apart and, escaping from the putrid smell of mink, sable and silver fox, famished from fish food, it flies, its doors wide-open and (its aisle) empty, with a robber-like roar toward the mountain…

The Russian sentence can conveniently leave out the subject so that each clause is well balanced and reads smoothly. Although a subject is required in German, the inversion of the subject and predicate achieves a similar effect, while the rigid structure of the English sentence requires both that a subject be present and that it precede the object. No part of this sentence is particularly poetic in English: it is a forced literal translation attempting to retain the style of the original. The German equivalent, however, sounds completely natural and reads comparatively smoothly primarily because the subject is able to follow the predicate, which in turn allows for the creation of thoroughly conventional German clauses.
In the second half of the sentence, the present participle (спасаясь) offers an example of an uncommon case where the English text can potentially come closer to the structure of the Russian thanks to the commonality of this verb form in English (as opposed to German where the form exists, but it is not all that common). In the following passage we have a case where it would not be possible for a German translator to use a gerund:

Катер, встав против течения, торопится обратно в город. Прощаясь, малчик машет лыжнику рукой, хотя и знает наверняка, что тот его не видит. (244)

Das Motorboot, gegen die Strömung gestellt, eilt zur Stadt zurück. Er winkt dem Wasserskifahrer zum Abschied zu, obwohl er genau weiß, daß dieser ihn nicht sehen kann. (36)

The motorboat, going against the current, rushes back toward the city. Saying goodbye, the boy waves to the skier, although he knows for sure that the latter does not see him.

Here the conventions of English offer a structure only slightly different from the Russian original, whereas the German language prohibits anything of the kind. In German the last sentence with the present participle becomes an adverbial phrase and turns the first two clauses into one because it is not common to make a present participle out of Abschied or one of its synonyms (e.g. auf Wiedersehen) in part because they are not verbs and it is unusual to use the nouns with verbs such as say (i.e. saying goodbye). Consequently, the German appropriately diverges from the original to recreate some semblance of poetry, but in doing so departs from the original more than is required in English where saying goodbye is quite common.

II. Relative Clauses, Commas and Forms of Expression

Another similarity between Russian and German that is conducive for translation is the clearly delineated clausal (verschachtelte) approach to language, i.e. the inclusion of independent clauses to (sometimes extensively) expand and illuminate text. This style of writing also benefits from relative pronouns in German and Russian that can be unmistakably identified with the noun they modify. As contemporary German and Russian literature continue to include more relative clauses in their work than their English counterparts, a translation from one to the other will invariably look and sound relatively familiar to a reader. On the other hand, a text with numerous relative clauses has an odd effect on an Anglo-American simply because she is not used to reading literature of this kind. This is compounded by the difficulties that an English translator encounters as a result of limited flexibility in the formation of sentences and that a reader experiences when she is not sure what noun a relative pronoun is modifying in a clause like the trunk of the tree, which he… Here is a classic case of potential confusion:

Он ведь всегда, и не хуже Томаса Манна, знал, что плоды шиповника (rosa acicularis) исключительно богаты витамином С, но, к стыду своему, ни разу не подумал о том, что густой кустарник, беспризорно растущий на склонах горы, иссушивший тела древник яблонь на террасах бывшего монастырского сада, своими злыми корнями изъевший основание кирпичной стены на горе, своими колючими ветвями поглотивший стену до самой ее невысокой вершины, эти недружелюбные заросли, таящие в себе столько мышиных нор, ужиных гнезд и детских тайников, и есть шиповник, rosa acicularis, богатый витамином С. (237-8)

Er hatte schon immer, ebenso gut wie Thomas Mann, gewußt, daß die Beeren der Heckenrose (rosa acicularis) außerordentlich reich an Vitamin C sind, hatte aber zu seiner Schnade nie daran gedacht, daß das dichte Gebüsch, das unkrautartig die Hänge des Berges bedeckte, das die alten Apfelbäume auf den Terassen des ehemaligen Klostergartens ausdörrte, das mit seinen gemeinen Wurzeln das Fundament der Ziegelmauer auf dem Berg untergrub und mit seinen stachligen Zweigen die nicht sehr hohe Mauer bis zu ihrer Spitze verschlungen hatte, daß dieses unfreundliche Dickicht, das in sich so viele Mauselöcher, Blindschleichennester und Kinderverstecke barg, eben aus jener Heckenrose bestand, rosa acicularis, die reich ist an Vitamin C. (25)

In fact he had always known, no worse than Thomas Mann, that the berries of the prickly rose (rosa acicularis) are exceptionally rich in vitamin C, but to his own embarrassment he’d never once thought about how the dense bushes – which grew neglected on the slope of the mountain, which dried up the bodies of the ancient apple trees on the terraces of the former monastery garden, whose malicious roots ate away at the base of the brick wall on the mountain, whose thorny branches devoured the wall all the way up to its low top; this unfriendly overgrowth that housed so many mouse holes, snake nests and children’s secrets – were also prickly roses, rosa acicularis, rich in vitamin C.

The endings on the Russian verbs in the independent clauses inform the reader of the noun to which they refer in the preceding clause; in German the relative pronouns der, die, das performs the same role, clearly linking the pronoun in the relative clause to a noun in the preceding one. But in English it is different. The relative pronouns which and that can refer to multiple nouns – even if it is common for them only to refer to the immediately preceding one. Furthermore, the relative pronoun that can be confused with a conjunction. For these reasons it is necessary to set off the relative clauses in English with a hyphen in the passage above so that the reader is only partially lost when she gets to the end of the sentence. This addition, of course, departs from the Russian, but is required for readability in English.
Another respect in which a German translation benefits over an English one is the possibility of using commas to separate independent clauses of a compound sentence. Andrey Dmitriev, like other postmodern writers, sometimes uses commas in the role traditionally reserved for periods and semicolons. Generally this is not problematic for the reader in Russian or German because the word or its declarative pronoun make the function of the noun clear in the sentence. While this is sometimes possible English, too, the ambiguity of the role played by English nouns often makes a semicolon unavoidable. Here is an example where commas may separate independent clauses in all three languages:

Скудело и разваливалось буквально все вокруг горы, все неумолимо оползало, и ничто не противостояло оползню, кроме нервов и ругани, кроме заклинаний и лихорадочных надежд. (239)

Praktisch alles um den Berg herum wurde kärglicher und zerfiel, alles rutschte ab, und nichts konnte diesem Erdrutsch Widerstand leisten, außer seinen Nerven und seinem Schimpfen, außer Beschwörungen und fieberhaften Hoffnungen. (27)

Literally everything around the mountain became skimpy and dilapidated, everything slid inexorably downward, and nothing could stem the slide except nerves and cursing, except conjuring and feverish hopes.

In English it is only possible to avoid a semicolon because everything repeats itself. Were the sentence is more complicated, with different subjects, this would no longer be possible, as we can see here:

Собранного шиповника хватило надолго, настоя из него выходило вдоволь... (238)

Die gesammelten Hagebutten reichten lange, es gab genug Hagebuttentee… (26)

The rose hips they collected lasted a long time; plenty of extract came out of them…

A comma instead of a semicolon in English would make it possible to read plenty as an adverbial connected with a long time, for example: The rose hips they collected lasted a long time, plenty of time for the cooks to try all sorts of mixtures. In German and Russian there can be no confusion – what follows the comma is certainly a new complete sentence. The latter languages primarily enjoy the benefits of declination, which generally tells the reader the role the noun or pronoun is playing in the subsequent clause – whether it is preceded by a period, comma, semicolon or colon. This allows postmodern writers to eschew the semicolon for the comma to create fluidity or suggest proximity or meet some other theoretical concern. English only permits this in the simplest of cases, e.g., where clauses begin with “I” or follow a strict pattern – usually very concise and simplistic – that helps the reader avoid confusion. Andrey Dmitriev’s writing is however often too complex and polyphonic to generate clausal clarity in the simplistic style of – say – Jonathan Safran Foer.
Another peculiarity of the German and Russian language is their acceptance of what in English would be considered a redundancy. The archetypal example of this in German is the verb/noun weiterentwickeln/Weiterentwicklung, which is used time and again in texts from virtually every sphere of life. The word combines the idea of further and develop/ment in one and is often translated literally in this way. Germans and – no doubt – other defenders argue that the German words specify the continuation of development and that the word develop alone is insufficient to describe this continuing process, although development per se is a continuous process. Other common redundancies, especially in literature, often include body parts: e.g. clapped (with) his hands or stomped (with) his feet. Here is a sentence from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre by Goethe: “der Philister sprach Hohn, stampfte viel mit beiden Füßen…” (the Philistine spoke scornfully, stamped both his feet a lot…). And in Difficult People by Chekhov we can see the same thing: “ «Молчи!» - крикнул отец и затопал ногами” (“Hold your tongue,” cried the father and he stamped his feet). For whatever reason redundancies are accepted in Russian and German while they are frowned on in English, their accommodation by the former two makes it easier to retain the feel of the original without incorporating something awkward for the terminal language or leaving something out (even if the meaning is the same). Here is a conventional case followed by special ones, all from Turn in the River:

Сова сонно мигала своими глазами, а тигр важно дышал. (253)

Die Eule blinzelte schläfrig mit ihren Augen, und der Tiger atmete hochmütig. (50)

The owl winked drowsily, and the tiger breathed imposingly.

The German incorporates the redundancy into the translation and nicely mirrors the original. Yet this is not an option in English: either equivalence or poetry must be sacrificed. And here, while the English might fail to capture the precise rhythm of the sentence by leaving out the eyes, the benefits of having a poetic sentence outweigh the inclusion of all the elements. It is not always so simple however:

…когда он, топая и хлюпая сапогами по мокрой траве, куда-то скрывался во тьме... (253)

...wenn er, mit den Stiefeln über das nasse Gras stapfend und patschend, irgendwohin in der Dunkelheit verschwand… (49)

...when he, stomping and sloshing about with his boots in the wet grass, disappeared somewhere in the darkness…

As usual, Andrey Dmitriev throws in a little twist, replacing the clichéd feet with boots, which only increases the difficulties for an English translator. Replacing feet with boots is no problem in German and sounds perfectly natural – following, so to say, in the reliable tradition of Goethe. A good English translation would leave out the with if they were feet, but the boots are not only a particular object, but also an integral part of the father’s character (he). Here is another confounding example that requires translation due to an adjective that cannot be turned into an adverb to modify the noun:

...давясь от счастливого смеха, рассказывал отец и больно теребил мальчику волосы дрожащей рукой... (254)

…berichtete der Vater, sich vor glücklichem Lachen verschluckend, und raufte mit zitternder Hand dem Jungen die Haare, daß es wehtat… (52)

…said his father, choking on his happy laughter and pulling the boy’s hair painfully with his shaking hands…

If it were nervous hands that were doing the pulling, then it would be possible to have nervous modify the verb in order to avoid this clumsy sentence (especially if the other adverb painfully were not present): …and nervously pulling the boy’s hair or pulling the boy’s hair nervously. But we do not have this sentence and are forced to settle for a compromise of one sort or another.


The aforementioned examples represent only a few of the cases available for such an analysis. Nevertheless, these cited passages show that the linguistic structures and the literary tradition have a critical influence on the translation of a text. The comparison of two translations in two different languages offers an opportunity to explore some of the possibilities and limitations in the transfer of structures and forms of expression from one language to another. While there are few hard and fast rules in the literal translation of a text, the conventional structures and forms of expression in the terminal language must be regarded by and large for the sake of potential readers. These differ from language to language and force the translator to depart from the style of the original text wherever she encounters something that cannot be transferred.
This analysis of the two translations suggests that there is an affinity between the Russian and German languages that enables a German translator to remain closer to the original and to achieve greater equivalence. Examining the structure of the sentences and the forms of expression, as opposed to the poetry or content, also hints at the possibility of making more global assertions on the basis of this text. The apparent affinity of the Russian and German texts in this case would seem to be equally applicable to other texts written in Russian, while it would also imply that a Russian translation of a German text was likely to be closer to the original than its English counterpart.

By Henry Schroeder | Published  01/11/2007

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