Danglers of impersonal German

German is feared for its impersonal style. But look close and you’ll see the persons meddling in the background, which makes translating from German even sneakier than you thought!

There’s two types of nouns: living and dead ones. German likes dropping the human agents, but it doesn’t like inanimate objects taking their place, so it sneaks in the people without naming them:

  • Es ist schwer zu erfassen, wie viele Unfälle durch das Tragen von Helmen verhindert werden.
  • It is hard to measure how many accidents are prevented by [the] wearing [of] helmets.

The nominalized verb “Tragen” becomes a vehicle for this invisible human. If you translate this syntax into English, “wearing” becomes a dangling modifier – it’s got no human agent to attach to.

The quick fix for the dangler – and most other writing ailments – is to CUT THE PASSIVE (“are prevented”). Now “wearing” clearly belongs to “helmets”:

  • It is hard to measure how many accidents wearing helmets prevents.

Now “wearing” attaches to “helmets.” To English speakers, it’s implied that there’s got to be a person under the helmet, so you wouldn’t need to mention them.

The English structure would be grammatical but not logical in German, because “das Tragen” is just a noun-verb, and it cannot perform another verb:

  • Es ist schwer zu erfassen, wie viele Unfälle das Tragen von Helmen verhindert.

What now? The dead helmet cannot prevent an accident in German either. In English, it can. Therefore it’s unnecessary to include the gerund “wearing,” which is just a remnant of the German’s trying to sneak in the human:

  • How many accidents helmets prevent is hard to measure.

The German back-translation, while concise, would sound incomplete to German readers:

  • Wie viele Unfälle Helme verhindern ist schwer zu erfassen.

Even without the verb “tragen,” Germans would intuitively phrase this to imply human agency, thus making it a passive sentence:

  • Wieviele Unfälle durch Helme verhindert werden ist schwer zu erfassen.

Summary: Get rid of passives and danglers. Let inanimate objects act. Always look for the shortest phrase.

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