By Marion Rhodes
Have you ever translated a German press release or news article and scratched your head over the various different ways Germans appear to give statements? They hardly ever just say anything. Rather, they mention it, explain it, go on or criticize. Reading a German news release can provide more synonyms for say than a thesaurus.
And let’s not forget my favorite, the simple word so – as in “The new product is the result of years of planning,” so Bob the Manager. Honestly, this word is about as nondescript as it gets. Not to mention as lazy as it gets: Ah, forget it, let’s just use so to attribute this quote to the source and get this story in the paper.
As a trained journalist specializing in media translations, I’m no stranger to the challenges posed by localizing German news copy for the U.S. market. The question how to handle quote attribution can create more than a little headache for translators who are concerned with keeping the tone of the original text but also honor the journalistic conventions of the target country.
Growing up in Germany, the creative ways German spokespeople seem to express themselves (they äußern, meinen, erläutern and fahren fort, but they rarely ever sagen anything) did not rub me the wrong way. But when I studied journalistic writing in the US, I quickly learned that when it comes to attributing quotes, simplicity does it. “Said usually says it best,” my Associated Press Guide to News Writing emphasized.
“It’s short, clear, neutral and unfailingly accurate, a verb for all seasons.”
So what do you do if you have a piece of German news copy that needs to be translated into English, with all its elaborate said-synonyms?
Repeating the same attributive tag over and over throughout the same text certainly doesn’t make for elegant writing. But when trying to recreate the versatility of German journalistic copy, English writers need to carefully consider their word choices, especially when there is no direct equivalent in English (such as in the case of the blah-word so).
One word to be particularly careful with is the word meinen, which is commonly (albeit not always correctly) used in German newswriting when attributing quotes. Consider the following, real-life example:
„Wir feiern Geburtstag”, meinte er mit strahlender Miene. (“We are celebrating a birthday,” he said, his face lighting up.)
Meinen comes from the word Meinung, which means opinion, and it implies a certain conviction of the person making the statement. However, many German reporters and PR writers use it synonymously with the word say, such as in the example above, which is a statement of fact, not an opinion.
Consulting a dictionary to find a fitting translation for meinen isn’t the answer either. LEO, for example, suggests the words mean, opine, think, believe, guess, deem and suppose, among others – none of which captures the true meaning of the word in this case, which is plain and simple: He said it.
When I started working as a news reporter for the Omaha World-Herald in Nebraska, a newly arrived immigrant from Germany, I found myself trying to avoid repetition in the stories I wrote, coming up with creative alternatives for attribution whenever possible. I usually got my articles handed back to me after my editor had taken a look and found that in most, if not every, case, my innovative synonyms had been replaced with the same old, simple word: said. I quickly learned that US newspapers, as well as audiences, prefer simplicity when it comes to attribution.
When working on news copy, translators need to be aware of the hidden shades of meaning each attributive tag entails. Asserted, stated, declared, commented, remarked, revealed and observed are widely misused as alternatives for said, even though these words are really much stronger. If you need alternatives to avoid repetitiveness, consider these neutral options:
Words such as pointed out, claimed, warned, complained, predicted and maintained can have editorial nuances and should always be used with caution, whether you write original English copy or translate from another language. When translating German news articles, try to determine if the chosen attributive tag was selected deliberately for its particular connotations, or if the only justification for its use was to avoid the word said again. If there is no reason to be fancy, feel free to keep your translation plain and simple by sticking with the obvious.
One last note: Many German news stories and press releases use attribution in present tense – the source says something rather than said it. In English news writing, past tense is usually preferred for press releases and hard news.
When translating journalistic writing, you should check with the end client whenever possible whether their priority is sticking as close as possible to the original or making the translation sound like it was written by a native speaker of the target language. If the latter is the case, try to write like a journalist, not a translator.