German Translation Exam – Why German is So Difficult and One Key Secret to Decoding Those Sentences Today 2022

German Translation Exam – Why German is So Difficult and One Key Secret to Decoding Those Sentences

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For most English speakers, German is more difficult to translate than Spanish or French.  Why?  It has all those endings, and the sentences are longer. They’re also more convoluted — really.  This is what makes it a big challenge for Art History graduate students who need to pass their German translation exam, often in a big hurry.  Still, they approach German the right way, they can get access to its secret code fairly quickly.

At the heart of cracking the German translation code is something called “case.”  Case is basically a tool that marks each noun or noun phrase in a sentence with respect to the role it plays in that sentence.

For example, there’s a case marker that signals “subject.”  Another signals “object.”  And so on.

English no longer has case endings, so it must rely on word order to signal the functions of the nouns in a sentence.

For example, the following two English sentences mean very different things:

1) The dog chased the canary.

2) The canary chased the dog.

That’s because word order tells us who is doing the chasing and who is being chased. In languages with extensive case endings, things are different.  In German, for example, the sentences could read as follows:

3) Der Hund jagte den Kanarienvogel.

4) Den Kanarienvogel jagte der Hund.

5) Den Hund jagte der Kanarienvogel.

6) Der Kanarienvogel jagte den Hund.

Notice the articles.  “Der” signals that the noun phrase with that marker is the subject, while “den” signals that it is the object.  And in our examples 3) and 4), “der” is matched up with the dog (Hund), and “den” is matched up with the canary (Kanarienvogel).  This means the dog is doing the chasing and the canary is doing the escaping.

In examples 5) and 6), however, the articles have been swapped.  This results in a very different picture: the canary is now chasing the dog,

Once again, both versions mean the same thing.  Note how now the object case goes with the dog and so the dog is the one getting chased.  Why chose one over the other?  Whichever noun phrase the sentence starts with usually is seen as the known entity, or thing the sentence is about.  The rest of the sentence tells us what is going on with the thing (or person, or animal) the sentence is about.  Something like this:  sentence 5) is about the dog and what the dog is doing.  Sentence 6) is about the canary and what is going on with the canary.  If you want to do this kind of highlighting in English, you have to resort to passive:

7) The canary was chased by the dog.

Or worse:

8) It was the canary that the dog chased.

So far, so good.  You think you can handle that.  But what makes this really challenging is the fact that there are three different genders in German, and so there are three different sets of case endings.  Not only that, but the three genders are fairly randomly assigned to words.

So the only way to get a handle on what’s what is to memorize the words WITH their matching articles. Either that, or you have to look up a lot of words.  That’s because you must know the gender of the word in order to be sure of the case.  And you must know the case to be sure who is doing what in the sentence.

And the reason why it’s so tricky to figure out the last bit is because Germans, having case to indicate who is doing what, do not rely on word order to do the same, as we have seen in the examples above.  This leaves word order to do a different job:  emphasizing, smoothening transitions, and indicating what’s the topic of the sentence and what’s the comment.

And that’s one of the keys that make German more challenging in a translation test, be it Art History, Physics, or Philosophy. Still, if you learn the articles as part of each noun, and you’ve got your case endings down, you’re way ahead of the game.

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