Language Learning and Translation – German as an Example

By James

Whenever I hear someone who comes from Germany, I will habitually utter my hackneyed sentence to him/her in German: “Ich kann ein bisschen Deutsch sprechen, aber immer möchte ich die Fremdsprache bessern”, which reads in English: “I can speak a little bit German but I always want to enhance my speaking skills”. Some friends of mine have once half-teasingly discouraged me from further improvement, since, according to their unbending beliefs, a non-native speaker has to spend most of their lifetime acquiring the grammatically well-structured yet complex language. But my unyielding, or you can even say, my obdurate personality provides me with lubricant which keeps smoothening my determination in mastering die schwierige Sprache (the difficult language). I hope ultimately I can read and understand works in German written by influential philosophers including the three H’s – Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger.

“Why don’t you merely read in English version?” occasionally some enquire. But my three years’ translation training at the university has taught me die Unmöglichkeit der Übersetzung oder die Unübersetbarkeit – the impossibility of translation, or the untranslatability – which means you always miss etwas in the translated text and are never able to attain the genuine meaning of its original counterpart. Benjamin has once cited in his essay “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzer” (or The Task of a Translator in English) how translation fails to achieve its function:

In “Brot” und “pain” ist das Gemeinte zwar desselbe, die Art, es zu meinen, dagegen nicht. In der Art des Meinens nämlich liegt es, daß beide Worte dem Deutschen und Franzosen je etwas Verschiedenes bedeuten, daß sie für beide nicht vertauschbar sind, ja sich letzten Endes auszuschließen streben; am Gemeinten aber, daß sie, absolut genommen. (Benjamin)

Even though “Brot” and “pain” both signify bread in English, you definitely obtain different forms, texture, and taste of bread when you buy one respectively from a German Bäckerei and a French boulangerie. Following Benjamin’s logic, you are convinced that a translator should not commit the fallacy of direct words rendering but shall also consider the cultural contexts when swapping from one language to another. His argument is almost unimpeachable, but a question arises: What if it is impossible to find an equivalent despite t the cultural differences are taken into account?

One example that springs up in my mind is the philosophical term Dasein (literally translated as there-being) proposed by Heidegger. Some English translators proposed an English equivalent “existential” but had soon been criticized its impreciseness since Existenz in German differs from Dasein, with the former, according to my superficial understanding, being more or less a stable entity while the later emphasizing a particular moment of living. Therefore, it is always favourable to use language learning as a stepping stone to further recognition of a particular culture.

It is unfortunately a pity to say that life is too short to be a master of all languages. Here I would quote what the Chinese sage Confucius said: “Respect ghosts and spirits, but keep them at a distance”. My foci in the future are German, French and francophone, Anglophone, Chinese, Japanese and Korean literatures and cultures.


Benjamin, Walter (1963 [1923]): „Die Aufgabe des Übersetzer“. In: Störig, Hans Joachim (Hrsg.): Das Problem des Übersetzens. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, S. 182–195.

[Featured image: Photo taken by James on 14th July, 2010 somewhere in Europe]


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