Using dictionaries correctly – or how to avoid bad DIY translations

I’ve already written here about bad DIY translations and I came across another one today. Here is how these amateur translators could have spotted their embarrassing mistakes.

1. Case 1 – Black Lenses

In this case the person in question was trying to translate the German word ‘linse’. Consulting you will find that there are a number of English possibilities including lens, lense, lentil, nugget and refractor. Each of these terms are followed by an abbreviation  – lens is followed by the abbreviations [anat.] [phot.] [phys.], lentil is followed by the abbreviations [bot.], etc.

What do these abbreviations mean. LEO has compiled a helpful list which explains it all. If you consult it you will see that anat. means anatomy or in German ‘Anatomie’, phot. means photography or ‘Fotografie’ and phys. means physics or ‘Physik’. Thus the word lens is the correct translation of ‘linse’ if you are using the word to describe something anatomical, photographic or in the field of physics. Consulting the same list for bot., the abbreviation that appeared after lentil, you will find that bot refers to botany or ‘Botanik’, a plant. Given that the ‘linsen’ in this bad translation were of the cooking variety, this alone should have confirmed that lentil was the correct translation. However the DIY translators here could have double checked using an English-English dictionary. The standard dictionary for British English is the Oxford English Dictionary, and although the complete version is a subscriber only service there is a concise version available here which is perfectly adequate for most purposes. For American English the standard dictionary is Merriam-Webster’s which is available online here free of charge. Either one would have confirmed that a lens is something used in photography and a lentil is a plant you can cook with. Which would have meant that black lentils is the correct translation of ‘Schwarze Linsen’ in this context.

2. Case 2 – ‘Danke für Ihr Verständnis’

Well, one of the privileges of being self-employed is that you can choose your hours so today I chose to avoid the Saturday rush and go shopping for a new jacket in the Alexa Mall in Berlin. While I was walking through an automated announcement was played which advised visitors that smoking was not permitted inside the mall. The German version ended with the standard German ‘Danke für Ihr Verständnis’, which literally translates as ‘Thank you for your understanding’. That sounds bad enough, but the Alexa English version was even worse – ‘Thank you for your comprehension’. What went wrong here?

Well obviously it was a DIY translation, but the first thing the DIY translator apparently did not understand is these kind of functional statements can rarely be directly translated. The non-literal English equivalents would be something like ‘we apologise for any inconvenience this may cause’ or ‘we appreciate your patience’. In my opinion a simple ‘thank you’ would have been the most appropriate solution here. But even ‘thank you for your understanding’ would have been better than nothing.

How did they mix up comprehension and understanding? Easy! Type in ‘verständnis’ into and you will see that both understanding and comprehension turn up as possible options. There are no useful abbreviations here to help us but if they had clicked on comprehension to see what other German meanings this might have they would have seen that there are about 13 other German words that fit the bill including ‘begreifen’ which can translate as to grasp mentally. If they had then checked one of the English-English dictionaries they would have seen that the primary definition of comprehension is ‘the act or action of grasping with the intellect‘. Clicking on Understanding you will find a ‘sympathetic awareness or tolerance‘ as one possible meaning. This is what they meant here by ‘verständis’ and comprehension has no similar meaning, so this word should have been ruled out straight away.

Of course if the DIY translator’s English is too limited to manage this whole process then they should probably hire a professional, something that we at Translabor would recommend anyway!


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