German and English Academic Usage and academic translation

I have just started reading German and English Academic Usage and Academic Translation (2021), by Dirk Siepmann. This starts with an exercise of translating a short passage of German academic text. It is only one paragraph, though quite a long one:

Seit Mitte der 1980er Jahre hat Michel Espagne sukzessive das Themenfeld des interkulturellen Transfers methodish-theoretisch begründet, zunächst exemplarisch an den deutsch-französischen Kulturbeziehungen des späteren 18. bis frühen 20. Jahrhunderts entfaltet und schließlich zu einer global aufgestellten Forschungsrichtung entwickelt.

Siepmann recommends translating this text before reading the rest of the book. If you speak German and fancy having a go at translating the passage, you might want to try it before you read on.


My first translation

Here is my attempt, made before I read any further:

Since the mid 1980s, Michel Espagne has been gradually building methodological and theoretical foundations for studying inter-cultural transfers, at first with case studies unpicking Franco-German cultural relations from the late 18th to early 20th centuries and then by developing the themes he had identified into a broad research programme.
Translation 1, Peter Clark, first attempt

Comments on my translation

  1. The verb begründen most often means to justify (ie cite the grounds for something). I translated it as build [new] foundations, which seems to make more sense in this context than justify [existing] foundations. Meanings of the related noun der Grund include ‘ground’, ‘foundation’ (both literally and figuratively) and ‘reason’.
  2. I translated the German present perfect (Seit …. hat M E … begründet) with the progressive form of the English present perfect (Since … M E has been building).
  3. I converted the conjoined adverbs methodish-theoretisch (which modify the verb begründet) into adjectives methodological and theoretical, modifying foundations.
  4. Themenfeld means ‘field of themes’, so here it means a set of topics in a given field. I didn’t find a way to fit it into the first clause, but did ultimately squeeze themes into the final clause. In that position, it clarifies that the themes (Themenfeld) are the grammatical object of the last verb (entwickelt)—something I didn’t realise until I had read the dense original several times. I picked themes rather than something like field of themes or set of themes, which would, I think, have puzzled English readers.
  5. At first I thought sukzessive must be an adjective, meaning ‘successive’. The -e suffix suggests it modifies a noun, but it could not plausibly modify any of the nouns in the sentence. Looking it up, I discovered it is, in fact, an adverb, meaning ‘gradually’.
  6. I hesitated over deutsch-französisch. A literal translation, preserving the sequence would be Germano-French. I opted for the more natural-sounding Franco-German, though at the cost of changing the sequence.
  7. Exemplarisch seems here to mean ‘by examples’, as opposed to building up a more comprehensive and theoretical structure. I translated it by with case studies.
  8. Entfaltet means ‘unfolded’. It is a near synonym of entwickelt, which typically means ‘unfolded’, though etymologically it means ‘unwrapped’ or even ‘unswaddled’. For entfaltet, I was tempted to use unpacked, which is close to the literal meaning. I went for unpicked, which I think readers would understand more easily in this context.
  9. Googling global aufgestellten suggests it often describes companies with operations all over the world. That meaning doesn’t fit here. I considered globally oriented but went in the end for broad.
  10. The syntax of the German is dense, poorly constructed and difficult to unravel. I had to read it many times before I concluded that: (a) entfaltet is an adjectival predicate of das Themenfeld (the themes were unpicked), rather than a past participle with deutsch-französisch Kulturbeziehungen (Franco-German cultural relations) as its direct object; (b) the direct object of entwickelt is Themenfeld, not Kulturbeziehungen.

Translation by an experienced translator

Siepmann supplies a translation by an anonymous translator with 5 to 10 years experience in academic translation:

Since the mid-1980s, he has successively established the field of intercultural transfer in both its methodological and theoretical aspects, initially developing the field based on the German-French cultural relations of the later eighteenth to early twentieth centuries and later expanding it into a global research area.
Translation 2, anonymous translator

Siepmann’s comments on the anonymous translation

  1. The translator’s use of participial constructions (developing, expanding) makes the text flow well from beginning to end.
  2. Translating methodish-theoretisch into a nominal construction (methodological and theoretical aspects) worked well, but aspects was the wrong noun to pick.
  3. Successively is a mis-translation of sukzessive (see my comment 5 above).
  4. Begründen refers to the whole framework for the research, not just to aspects of it. Siepmann suggests build/provide/lay the theoretical and methodological foundations. Also, because theory precedes methodology, he suggests that it is more logical to place theoretical before methodological—even though the German original has the opposite order.
  5. The translation places methodological and theoretical aspects at the end of the clause. This was a poor choice because the end of the clause should be the informational high point of the clause—in this case, what Espagne does, not how he does it.
  6. Intercultural transfer correctly renders interkultureller Transfer. English language writing about Espagne’s work uses both intercultural transfer and cultural transfer.
  7. The anonymous translator correctly translated begründen as establish, rather than justify.
  8. The translator failed to translate exemplarisch. Siepmann cricizes this as a strategy translators use to avoid items that are hard to translate. He also points out that exemplarisch is another false friend. It means ‘serving as an example’, not ‘exemplary / excellent / serving as a warning’.
  9. Global research area does not translate global aufgestellte Forschungsrichtung well. Forschungsrichtung is a ‘line / strand / direction’ of research, which is narrower than a whole research area. Also, Global research area tends to suggest a forum for research or a global entity, rather than a local entity. Siepmann suggests program(me) of research.
  10. Ideally, a translation of Entfalten would capture not only a dominant meaning of ‘unfolding’ (ent-faltet) a new territory—a thematic area—by offering a tentative outline, but also a resonance of carrying out a labour-intensive research programme.
  11. Especially in a learned context like this, the preferred wording for deutsch-französisch is Franco-German.
  12. Overall, the anonymous translator’s version ‘falls somewhat below acceptable standards’ but commits fewer outright errors than the following machine translation.

Machine translation

Since the mid-1980s, Michel Espagne has successively founded the field of intercultural transfer methodologically and theoretically, initially developing it in an exemplary manner on the basis of German-French cultural relations of the later 18th to the early 20th century and finally developing it into a globally oriented field of research.
Translation 3, machine translation (errors highlighted by Siepmann in bold)

3 more translations

Siepmann offers 3 further translations by:

  • Siepmann himself
  • John D Gallagher
  • Siepmann himself, incorporating a suggestion by Gallagher.
Since the mid-1980s, he has gradually [variant 1 below] built and expanded the theoretical and methodological foundations of cultural transfer studies as a thematic area of research [variants 2 and 3], starting with the example of Franco-German cultural relations in the late 18th to eighteenth to early 20th centuries before eventually branching out to global avenues of research. [variant 4]
Translation 4, Dirk Siepmann

Possible variants suggested by Siepmann

1 in an incremental process [instead of gradually]

2 thematic area for research [instead of thematic area of research]

3 intellectual enquiry [instead of research]

4 and latterly broadening the field to encompass a more global perspective [instead of before eventually branching out to global avenues of research.]


Since the mid-1980s, he has been working to provide a methodological and theoretical underpinning for studies relating to cultural transfer as a thematic area of research. He began by exploring, by way of example, Franco-German cultural relations from the late eighteenth till the early twentieth century, and he has now expanded cultural transfer studies into a globally oriented field of research.
Translation 5, John D Gallagher
Since the mid-1980s, he has been working to provide the theoretical and methodological foundations of cultural transfer studies as a thematic area of research. He began by using the example of Franco-German cultural relations from the late 18th eighteenth till the early twentieth century, and he has now expanded cultural transfer studies into a globally oriented field of research.
Translation 6, Dirk Siepmann, reflecting a suggestion by Gallagher

Siepmann’s comments

  1. His own first translation does not render entfalten explicitly. Nevertheless, the 2nd verb (expand) and the final adjunct in the 1st clause (as an area of intellectual enquiry / as a thematic area of research) together imply that the example of Franco-German cultural relations illustrates ‘intellectual enquiry’.
  2. Like the anonymous translator, Siepmann’s 1st translation translates the single German sentence into a single English sentence. In contrast, Gallagaher and Siepmann’s 2nd translation split the translation into 2 sentences. Keeping a single sentence foregrounds Espagne’s achievement in creating the discipline. Creating 2 sentences highlights the time sequence of events.
  3. The German adverb sukzessive expressed the modal meaning of ‘non-conclusive duration’. Gallagaher transposed this adverb into an English verb in the progressive form of the perfect (has been working). Siepmann praised this as an example of Gallagher’s ‘genius’.

My comments on Siepmann and Gallagher

Some things in the translations by Siepmann and Gallager strike me as unsatisfactory:

  1. Some phrases seem too vague or unnecessarily long-winded : globally oriented field of research, studies relating to cultural transfer, global avenues of research.
  2. The notion of thematic area of research is unclear. Is the research thematic? Is area thematic? I’m not sure either of these alternatives make sense.
    I still think a better approach is downgrading Themenfeld to themes, and moving this word to the final clause.
  3. Branching out (Siepmann) and expanded cultural transfer studies both suggest a new direction. This seems inconsistent with the 1st clause, which emphasises a continuation of the original direction.

My updated translation

Having read Siepmann’s comments, I would change my translation only by splitting it into 3 sentences, to read as follows:

Since the mid 1980s, Michel Espagne has been gradually building methodological and theoretical foundations for studying inter-cultural transfers. At first he carried out case studies unpicking Franco-German cultural relations from the late 18th to early 20th centuries. Later, he developed the themes he had identified into a broad research programme.
Translation 7, Peter Clark, updated

I would perhaps also drop gradually because it adds nothing.

Conclusion

I’m now looking forward to reading the rest of Siepmann’s book.

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