Subject/agent splitting and personification in translation

One special case of the old rule to never use the passive voice is what I call “subject/agent splitting.” German loves not just passive clauses without agents, but also scattering the subject all over a sentence. It’s a bad writing habit few are aware of and occurs in many other languages.

While as a rule you could just say “never, never, never use the passive voice and always put the subject first” I want to look closer at reflexivity and animacy in the source language and why they sound foreign if translated directly.

An example:

  • DE: In den Medien und vor Gericht machte sich die Sache gar nicht gut.
  • EN: In the media and in court, this affair did not go over well at all.

While it isn’t technically wrong, the English sounds weird, right? A translator’s main task is to understand and make clear who is doing what to whom (subject – verb – object). This didn’t happen here; this sentence is undertranslated in that it’s too close to the source language syntax.

The German uses this structure because the subjects (media & court) cannot act on the affair (the object). Instead the object has to act on itself, which makes it both subject and object, which kind of breaks the space-time continuum and fries our brain cells.

You could say “Die Medien und Gerichte waren nicht erfreut…” but this personificiation (see below) sounds slightly informal. German has a much stricter division between written and spoken language than English.

When translating this sentence, you need to understand that “the media & the court” are the real subject/agent of this sentence and the affair is the object/patient. The German turns the subject into the location (“in the…”) while turning “the affair” into a self-flagellating maniac.

If this is too confusing, just remember English is all about SVO:

  • The media and courts (S) were not too happy (V) about this affair (O).

You could say “pleased” instead of “happy,” and even the Queen would be positively amused.

While some consider personification (“attribution of human characteristics to abstract concepts”) a stylistic fault, it is also an “innate tendency of human psychology” – meaning readers understand it right away. Thinking is the writer’s job.

Another common example are introductions like “The paper says…” or “The report states…” It’s perfectly fine in English, everyone understands that paper doesn’t speak, and that it’s the shortest way to say it.

In “proper” German you would have to write “It is written in the essay…” (“In dem Aufsatz steht geschrieben…”) to imply that the dead paper is just a vehicle for a very smart human, probably a German, who isn’t even mentioned directly, because he’s camera shy. That’s also why you have to call this paper an “essay” and why German translators are always “Fachübersetzer.”

I’m not sure these rules are written anywhere, but many Germans would intuitively find something wrong with “Das Papier (be)sagt…”, although it’s not really wrong, almost poetic. It tells a lot about how they see the world – a lot more than the average reader of a translation wants to know.

What do you think? Are you struggling with language structure? Have you read any particularly weird translations? Leave a comment!

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