What’s in a Word?



When you meet people that speak multiple languages, very often we think that it’s quite easy for them to perform translations from one language to another. After all, they have a mastery of the various languages, so it must be quite easy, right?

Well, I feel I do a terrible job at it, even if it’s not necessarily recognizable to all. In the land of the monoglots, the polyglot is king.

In spite of all of this, there are words that simply can’t be translated. Sure, you can explain from one language to another, but the meaning cannot always be transferred.  Let me give you a few examples from my world to explain the point.

Here in Austria, it is possible, as a renter to contribute funds towards the building of an apartment building. Basically, you make a loan to the company who will build your new domicile. You don’t own the land and will never own the building, but you do get paid back through reduced rent. In addition, you could sell the rights to live in ‘your apartment’. In German, there is one word, which describes all of what I just described (Genossenschaftswohnung). After all these years, I still have not found an equivalent word in English .

Another word in German tied to accommodation where I struggle is a Wohngemeinschaft. This describes a group of people, who are not lovers – or even friends – who share the cost of a large apartment. They all get their own room and share the kitchen, living room, restroom, etc.If you can think of a proper word in English to describe these two concepts, I will be eternally grateful to you.

The difficulty in translating such words is that such arrangements are not to be found in the culture I come from. If these concepts are foreign, then any translation will be lacking. After all, you cannot understand that which you cannot understand.

There also the the example of the same word used in a different context….with disastrous results!  Are you familiar with the word concurrence? In English, it means agreement or approval, whereas In German (or in many other European languages I’ve noticed), it means competition. I trust you can imagine the confusion that could come from this simple misunderstanding.

How many times have you been in a situation where an argument has arisen from a simple misunderstanding? When we take such situations and add the cultural element I’ve alluded to, you can imagine what kind of results you can expect. When working on assignments where multiple nationalities are involved, the chances are good that you will be  confronted exactly with this situation. Awareness will not prevent such situations from happening, but a lack of awareness will allow for misunderstandings to become issues that linger, and linger, and linger.

I would like to leave you with one last example. In 1990,  when East and West Germany were reunited, it was quite apparent that the East German infrastructure was not at parity with that of the West. Apart from quality and viability, there were some regulatory issues (e.g. use of asbestos in East Germany) that needed to be addressed. The richer west was asked to pay a Solidaritätsbeitrag (Social Contribution), which basically means that West Germans were asked to pay for the infrastructure improvements of the east.  After 25 years, the subject of solidarity has become contentious, but that’s another subject. Coming from the US, one’s instinctual reaction is to say ‘I gave at the office’, stating that my quota of contributions have been reached for the year. This may or may not be regulated by the amount one can use as a tax deduction, but the solidarity part truly gets lost, or even worse! This all looks very socialistic to the US citizen, which of course is the same as Communism.

“Didn’t this all die in 1989”, he or she may ask.

Of course, the subject of cross-cultural awareness is much more complicated that what I have just described. That being said, you can only properly describe that what you have experienced. The same rule applies to understanding.

Now, I will patiently wait by my notebook for your suggestions for my translation troubles….

Image courtesy of betanews


About the author: Michael Boyle
Michael Boyle
There is nothing that gives me more pleasure than to see people and organizations reach their full potential.