What is German?

A regular client (agency) sent me 160 words for urgent translation this morning. I opened the document to discover that it was already in English. I sent a quick reply and let her know that even with the best will in the world, translating that short piece into decent German would be impossible for me. She was way too apologetic in response, but did remind me of something, which I shall share here:

I  chatted quite regularly to a (barely literate) middle-aged teamaker called Renias at the offices where I worked as a secretary in the 1990s whose mother tongue was ChiShona*, and who spoke English badly and cheerfully. He was often concerned that I “thought too much”.

teapots facing each other_0001

One lunch-hour, I was busy working on a translation. Renias bought me a tray of tea (I know, so colonial!). He then asked me if he could ask me a question. He was curious as to what I was always working so hard on. He scrunched up his face so beautifully when I told him I was translating from German to English. The problem words for him in that sentence were “translating” and “German”. I explained in basic terms – using ChiShona and English as an example – what translation was and how the purpose of translation was for people of different languages to be able  understand each other.

Then he asked me what “German” is. It turns out his geography was bad too. He knew “England”. So we settled on “Germany is next to England – in Europe”. Then I told him that the people in Germany speak and write in German.

“Ah, German is another English”, he said.

I needed teaching after that. I asked him to explain how he arrived at that conclusion. “German is another English” makes perfect sense if by “English” you mean “a language spoken by white people which is hard to understand”. 

teapots facing each other_0001


* A language spoken in Zimbabwe.

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