The long and the short of it

The German language may be (in)famous worldwide for its tendency toward extremely long words, which are known to feature only very few vowels. Take the locksmith around the corner from me in Berlin as an example. The sign above the door reads: “Sicherheitsschliessfachladen.”

And yet it is not the long words that pose the greatest problems in translation. More often, it is the short words in the German language that have even more to say and therefore are all the more challenging to translate.

doch – According to most German-English dictionaries, “doch” means “still; yet; though.” But that does not explain the German’s partiality of using the word as a complete sentence in itself – something that “still, yet or though” are not quite capable of. It is often used to make a negative positive. Just imagine someone asks you, ” You don’t speak German, do you?” and your reply may be, “oh, yes I do!” or just “doch!”

zwar – Another great single word that we do not seem to have in English. The dictionary defines “zwar” as “indeed” but I see it as much more than that. I often find myself saying “zwar” while speaking English because it is so useful. It can be used to introduce a list or an extension of an idea in the meaning of the English “namely.” The difference is that if you say “namely” in passing, you may get some strange looks since it sounds so formal but that is not the case with “zwar” in spoken German.

so – Only 2 letters and still one of the most difficult words to define, and one of the most oft-spoken words in Berlin. But the “so” heard in Germany’s capital is not the same “so” spoken in the English-speaking world. When we check the dictionary, we learn that “so” in German means “such; as; that; thus.” That may be true in some cases but it more often seems to mean “like this/that” as in “not like this, but rather like that.” In fact, the word “like” is a good comparison because the Germans seem to say the word “so” just as much as Americans say “like” to pause in thought during speech, a kind of slang that can mean almost anything and nothing at the same time.

It took me years to be confident enough with my German to use words like “doch, zwar and so” in conversation. Other words like “Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaft” did not pose nearly as many problems – despite appearances.


5 responses to “The long and the short of it

  1. Mine is “ja”. Whether you are impressed (Das ist ja schön!) or anticipate dissapointment (Das klappt ja eh nicht.), want to turn your statement into a universal truth (Wie wir ja alle wissen) or undermine someone else’s credibility (Das ist ja ganz interessant) – “ja” is your word. In theory, it is nothing more than an affirmative interjection, but since it can affirm all kinds of intentions and emotions …

  2. excellent observations, Sarah and soooo true.
    ps I just voted for your blog in the Lexiophiles, good luck!
    allbest, h

  3. Hi Sarah, nice post!
    For me it’s the word ‘eben’. It can mean ‘even’ (eben noch mehr…), ‘just’ (Man muss es eben so nehmen, wie es kommt), or ‘now’ (Ich wollte eben weggehen), not to mention ‘flat’ or ‘Precisely’.
    I fully agree that it’s often the small words that are the most confusing.
    Nic at crosslingo

  4. Hello, nice post! I would add “mal” to the list

  5. Debbi Ellerman

    Thank you – you are helping me translate a letter from a friend in Wuerzburg:) Babelfish had no ideas!

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