April 11, 2019
Depersonification and implied human agency
German sentences will often have a human acting in the background for no semantic reason. Many Germans will avoid personification in formal writing, although there’s no rule against it.
For example, few Germans would write “Zäune dichten alle Wege ab.”
They would use the passive – not to avoid naming the agent – but to discreetly imply the human agent. The predicate (abdichten) also takes on the agent role:
DE source: “Alle Wege werden mit Zäunen abgedichtet.”
EN target: “All ways are sealed of with/by fences.”
If you look closer at the English, “by” (werden durch) implies that the fences are the agent, while “with” (werden mit) implies human agency. In both cases, the fences are just the indirect agent, although they are the subject of the sentence.
Personification is a great way to avoid interference from German and write more simply in general.
Try joining the agent and subject of a sentence and put it first:
Durch das Tragen von Helmen (subject) werden (implied agent) Unfälle (object) verringert. -> Wearing helmets reduces accidents. -> Helmets reduce accidents.
Follow this principle in the first example and you get a healthy, active S-V-O sentence: Alle anderen Wege werden mit Zäunen abgedichtet. – > All other ways are sealed off by fences. -> Fences seal off all other ways.
This advice would need to be qualified, however, if the “ways” are the theme of the sentence, because they were introduced in a preceding one:
- People are trying to cross the border on various routes. But all ways are sealed off by fences.
- Not: People are trying to cross the border on various routes, but fences seal off all other ways.
Here you want to place “ways” and “routes” together to create a thematic link between the sentences. Making “fences” the theme of the second sentence would not ruin it, but might make it harder to read.