Half a league, half a league / Polizeisprache

A new police radio system called Airwave has been introduced in the UK, and in connection with this it was reported at the weekend that police are to be taught to use a set of expressions that are uniform throughout the country.

Mark Garner of Aberdeen University, David Matthews from Edinburgh and Edward Johnson of Cambridge University have analysed an hour of police radio talk from every police force in the UK. This was news to me, but it’s been reported a number of times since at least December 2005.

Scotland on Sunday reported:

[They] found officers used 50 different words and phrases just to say “yes”, including “aye”, “yeah”, “OK”, “wilco”, “will do”, “right”, “alright”, “go ahead”, “excellent”, “thank you”, and “affirmative”.
Officers will be asked to restrict themselves to just three standard terms: “Received” for “I have understood you”; “Yes, yes” for “I agree”, and “Will do” for “I shall carry out the task”.
Johnson said: “Countless operational errors over the years have resulted from inappropriate communications provision, inappropriate procedures and poorly worded messages. Many lives have been sacrificed in the process.

I was worried myself about all the deaths resulting from English and Scottish police failing to communicate. But a talk by Edward Johnson, ‘Talking Across Frontiers’, explains it better:

It is doubtful that The Light Brigade would have charged at Balaclava in 1854 had Raglan’s command which prompted it been worded differently (Woodham-Smith 2000). The Tenerife air crash of 1977 may not have occurred had the air traffic control messages been clear (Hawkins 1987). The lives of an entire diving crew may not have been lost in the North Sea in 1983 (Godden 1983) had not the message ‘You can talk about overtime when you’ve made the clamp’ been mistakenly interpreted as an instruction to open a pressure lock.

The commenters at Scotland on Sunday took a narrow view of things, possibly as a result of inability to read. Others wanted English police to learn Scots. Jim A, more pertinently, wrote, ‘Me, ma talkin’s jist fine, it’s the rest o the buggers, no me’.

Edward Johnson’s paper linked above has lists of examples of radio talk and texting. It also discusses cross-border police communication (French/ English, German/Polish). In ‘One six a sierra sierra bravo golf one six two’ ‘there is conflict between the ‘NATO’ alphabet – alpha, bravo, charlie, etc., and the brand names of motor cars – Sierra, Golf, Alpha Romeo, Bravo.’

I had a book on learning Scots last year. It was the only language book I remember seeing that advised me not to try out my new knowledge in the country itself. There’s some good stuff online too, here texts and audiofiles, and look inside a Scots dictionary here.

Bad language in court / Schimpfwörter und Richter

Here’s an entry I never got round to publishing, because I didn’t get round to investigating the German situation.

Under the heading Taking no shit from judges, Mark Liberman at Language Log recently took up the topic of how judges express themselves when they need to quote words like shit and fuck.

He quotes an article in the New York Times on the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Second Circuit that ‘fleeting expletives’ are OK on TV, but I couldn’t tell whether the following euphemisms came from the court or the journalist. I was also surprised that there was a reference to ‘circuit-court judges’ – was this an appeal from a circuit court? It looks to me as if we’ll have to wait for the opinion to be published to see what was actually said.

Adopting an argument made by lawyers for NBC, the judges then cited examples in which Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney had used the same language that would be penalized under the policy. Mr. Bush was caught on videotape last July using a common vulgarity that the commission finds objectionable in a conversation with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain. Three years ago, Mr. Cheney was widely reported to have muttered an angry obscene version of “get lost” to Senator Patrick Leahy on the floor of the United States Senate.

I notice that some feeds head this report H0ly Sh17, a new combination of characters for me.

I did some research in English reports. It’s easy to search the Court of Appeal decisions at BAILII. I looked at the civil cases, but some of those are appeals relating to criminal offences. I had the impression that in cases where the police are involved, it’s impossible to quote the larger British public verbatim today without using these words. When they are quoted in other contexts, I found cases where the word was quoted, but accompanied by an apology. Here’s a House of Lords debate (the parliament chamber, not the court):

Perhaps in relation to the discretionary law, I may instance what happened to me yesterday. As I was walking out of Charing Cross Underground into the little linear path nearby, which noble Lords will know, there was a young adult urinating quite openly against the gates leading into the park. I made the remark, “That’s going to leave a nasty smell.”, and he said, “Fuck you.”. I am sorry to use the word in this House, but it happens to be the commonest single word in the vocabulary of that age group, I fear. That was his response. I believe that he said it, first, out of shock that anyone should even take note of the act and, secondly, out of a kind of indignation that anyone should interfere with what he undoubtedly considered to be a perfectly reasonable and proper act. Therefore, I must confess to a certain disappointment that, yet again, we are in the process of deluding ourselves and the public that we shall achieve anything in a measure covering 63 pages of new law relating to anti-social behaviour. But I would love to think that we might.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

And here is a Court of Appeal civil case. The applicant received bad medical treatment on one occasion and on this basis refused to pay an invoice (which his insurance company would have met) for a longer period of time – a man of principle, but perhaps his hospital memories were retroactively coloured by the one occasion:

In the apparently colourful language of the evening, Mr Holcroft told this young doctor to “fuck off” and that he would rather die of renal failure than be murdered by his ill treatment. It was dramatic, perhaps overstating, but not uncharacteristic of the man whose company I have enjoyed over the last three quarters of an hour. The result was that Mr Holcroft was totally dissatisfied, and this is the important point with which he must begin to grapple, not only with the treatment meted out to him on that evening but also dissatisfied with the whole of the treatment he had received during the whole of the duration he was in the hospital’s care. He accordingly refused to sign any certificate of satisfaction with that treatment and, although he had the benefit of the Norwich insurance, he refused to pass the bill to the Norwich Union, but determined to show up the hospital for the bunch of incompetents that he now believes they are.

Fürth marathon


The population of Fürth transfixed by the 1000th-anniversary marathon. And also the half-marathon:



Added later (see comments):


The list of winners shows these are Wolfgang Vogt (born 1959) from Düsseldorf fire brigade and Andreas Engelhardt (born 1981) from Fürth fire brigade, who finished 94th and 90th respectively. Both took about 3:15 hours for the course. There were 1407 runners and the last one took 6:32 hours. Photo taken at 11:36.

Patience / Geduld

Letter from a firm that works with amazon.de:

Sehr geehrte Margaret Marks,
vielen Dank für Ihre E-Mail.
Der voraussichtliche Liefertermin für die von Ihnen bestellte Ware in unserem Hause wird der 736-0098127-8790569 sein. Wir bitten noch um etwas Geduld.
Sobald die Ware in unserem Hauptlager eingeht, wird sie auf dem schnellsten Wege in den Versand gegeben. Natürlich erhalten Sie hierüber wie gewohnt eine Versandbestätigung.
Bei weiteren Fragen stehen wir Ihnen gerne zur Verfügung.
Mit freundlichem Gruß


Sehr geehrte Frau XXX,
danke für die Antwort.
Muss ich mich wirklich bis zum 736-0098127-8790569 gedulden? Es kommt mir sehr lange vor.
Mit freundlichen Grüßen
Margaret Marks


Sehr geehrte Margaret Marks,
vielen Dank für Ihre E-Mail.
Das stimmt, das ist eine sehr lange Zeit. Sorry, so sollte das eigentlich da gar nicht stehen, da hat der Fehlerteufel zugeschlagen. Gemeint war: 26.06.2007 – 28.06.2007
Bei weiteren Fragen stehen wir Ihnen gerne zur Verfügung.
Mit freundlichem Gruß

Here we see the Fehlerteufel, which can more or less only zuschlagen in German, and the German usage of Sorry, which must have some cachet.

Task force / Eingreifreserve

Someone on ProZ wanted to translate Eingreifreserve into English. The public prosecutor’s office at Frankfurt am Main has one. It consists of eight public prosecutors and mainly concentrates on white-collar crime and organized crime. I thought of task force, but now I see they have created a Task Force which gives general support in all areas. So really one should translate Eingreifreserve as task force and Task Force as backup force or something, but I suppose that might be confusing. Beck aktuell:

Die staatsanwaltschaftliche Task Force soll die Eingreifreserve bei der Generalstaatsanwaltschaft ergänzen, die aus acht Staatsanwälten besteht. Während die Eingreifreserve fallbezogen mit dem Schwerpunkt der Wirtschaftskriminalität und der Organisierten Kriminalität tätig werde, bewirke die Task Force eine umfassende personelle Unterstützung vor Ort. So könne ein Mitglied der Task Force beispielsweise eingesetzt werden, um einen erkrankten Jugenddezernenten bei einer Staatsanwaltschaft vorübergehend zu ersetzen.
beck-aktuell-Redaktion, Verlag C. H. Beck, 21. Mai 2007.

94-year-old legal translator carries on / 94jähriger juristischer Übersetzer macht weiter



The Independent.ie reports:

A FORMER SS officer convicted of murdering hundreds of civilians in Rome during the Second World War was cleared yesterday to leave house arrest every day to work, sparking outrage among Jewish groups.
Erich Priebke (93) was told by a military judge that he was free to leave his flat in Rome to work as a translator at his lawyer’s firm in the city. Under the terms of his detention, Priebke was also able leave the office for “essential requirements,” the judge said.

Erich Priebke was trained in the hotel business but started his linguistic career as an interpreter for the Gestapo in 1936. Thence he became a civil servant and from February 1941 was a liaison officer with the Italian police in the German Embassy in Rome. He is under house arrest (if he were younger it would be prison – he was born in 1913) for his part in the murder of 335 Italians in 1944 (the Ardeatine Caves massacre).

Wikipedia English German

Thanks to Derek, who reports at www.flefo.org:

Even more remarkable is the storm of protest from Jewish organizations suggesting that SS Hauptsturmführer Priebke (rtd.) is using his employment as a translator in order to prepare his escape. I suppose they fear that he might be planning to cross the Alps on foot under cover of darkness and get back to his old friends in Germany.

German phonetics blog/Deutsches Phonetik-Weblog

John Wells links to a German phonetics weblog, Phonetik. It is anonymous (Dirk Olbertz is responsible for blogger.de, not for the blog – see comments). It has a particular interest in the pronunciation of foreign names – for instance, it would have us pronounce Marilyn Monroe in the U.S. rather than the British way. My old Wells Phonetics dictionary gives three British versions and one American ending.

I wonder what he or she would think of the Germanization of Rosamunde Pilcher? (You have to register to comment, and my old antville registration doesn’t seem to work, and in any case I write too many rubbishy comments).

LATER NOTE: the Phonetik blog has kindly commented on this – see note to my earlier entry.

Translating Kafka / Kafka auf Englisch

My attention has been directed (thanks, Trevor) to an entry in a Guardian Unlimited blog by Lee Rourke, headed ‘What goes into a great translation?‘ and dealing with Michael Hofmann’s new translations of Kafka.

The difference is noticeable from the very first line, so immediate are Hofmann’s translations. For instance, and to use Kafka’s most famous opening sentence, here’s Hofmann’s offering:
“When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed.”
Compare this to any previous translation, and you’ll see, for a start, that there is no dilly-dallying with style; the prose is swift, direct and without obfuscation, as, one presumes, Kafka intended.

Now a new translation every couple of decades may be a good idea, but the way this is phrased does tend to throw a ripple through one’s BS detectors. Kafka writes a plain sentence – were those other translators so wide of the mark? And the praise of the term cockroach also seems misplaced.

It is the word “cockroach” that tickles me the most. At first it seems incongruous (as pointed out in Nicholas Lezard’s recent Guardian review). But it is clever. In the original Prague-German, Kafka uses the word “ungeziefer” which literally translates as “vermin”. Kafka wanted to denote the marginalised, detested individual. Hofmann could have used the word “vermin” but, though still denoting something to be looked down upon, it would have taken us away from the crucial image of the insect (although it is interesting to note that when Kafka contemplated his story being illustrated he envisaged a picture of a man lying in the bed and not an insect). So Hofmann uses the word “cockroach”, the duality of which is unmissable. A brilliant stroke.

Hmph. It’s a problem for the translator that Ungeziefer is rather unspecific and leaves the reader to create an image. But the later behaviour of the insect implies it can eat some things that Gregor turned his nose up a couple of days earlier, but other things it can’t eat, whereas a cockroach could presumably eat anything. It has the sense of vermin, but not the sense of vulnerability. Beetle or bug would make more sense.

So this entry has produced some great comments, starting with Killigan:

“as, one presumes, Kafka intended” … That “one presumes” kind of undercuts the grand evaluative pronouncements on the quality of the translation. Have you read him in German?
“It is, most importantly, Kafkaesque.” Was Kafka’s writing Kafkaesque in the first place? That adjective means something along the lines of “nightmarish, alienated, dark”, a reduction or distortion which completely overlooks the matter of Kafka’s style or non-style, which is what you would have it refer to.
“Particles”, and especially “the very particles”, sounds suspiciously like literary pretension itself. What charlatan said that? Deleuze, perchance?

I love the ‘Kafkaesque’ remark. Can I manage to be Marksesque?

Killigan quotes Nabokov on the cockroach question in great detail. Rourke replies somewhat lamely, ‘I have read this story many times; it was never Kafka’s intention for the reader to take this tale literally (you know that).’ If literalness doesn’t matter, why don’t we translate it as a spider, then? Cockroach shmockroach.

I can’t say anything about Hofmann’s translation, but there are a number of the less famous renderings of the first sentence here. And although one may quibble (vermin isn’t countable in my English [actually, it’s a collective plural – see comments]), none of them look as if they greatly embroidered the text.

As for the rest of Kafka’s work, which Hofmann has apparently also translated, it should be of interest that the Muirs, for instance, did not have the original text at hand. I remember hearing that Malcolm Pasley gave a talk on Kafka – in the 1950s – and afterwards a woman came up to him and said she had a suitcase of Kafka manuscripts in the attic. Which Pasley published, and it made him. In Wikipedia, scroll down to Publications and dates. And it says of the translations:

After Pasley and Schillemeit completed their recompilation of the German text, the new translations were completed and published — The Castle, Critical by Mark Harman (Schocken Books, 1998), The Trial, Critical by Breon Mitchell (Schocken Books, 1998) and Amerika: The Man Who Disappeared by Michael Hoffman (New Directions Publishing, 2004). These editions are often noted as being based on the restored text.

That’s where Hofmann is interesting, when he translates the pre- or post-Brod versions of The Trial, The Castle and America.

Trevor found this via Conversational Reading, which has had a couple of interviews of literary translators this month and will be having more.

Simplifying legal German / Vereinfachung der deutschen Gesetzessprache

An article by Jan Keuchel in Handelsblatt, Frau Thiemes Gespür für Sprache, describes the role of Stephanie Thieme, a lawyer who has also studied German at university level, in making German statutes easier to understand (I see from her firm’s website that she has also worked as a publisher’s editor).

Seit 2002 arbeitet die Anwältin und Germanistin im Redaktionsstab der Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache beim Bundestag – und prüft die „sprachliche Richtigkeit und Verständlichkeit“ von Gesetzentwürfen. „Ich bin eigentlich der Stab“, sagt die zierliche Frau. Es gibt nur ihre eine Stelle.

Frau Thieme’s first degree was in German, but she studied law at the age of 37, and indeed, you probably need a German law degree for German lawyers to take you seriously (haven’t tried this).

Wer sich wie Frau Thieme mit 37 und zwei Kindern noch ans Jurastudium gewagt hat, ist aber sowieso nicht so leicht abzuschütteln. Unangenehm findet sie es allerdings, auf ihre Juristenausbildung zu verweisen, wenn sie mal wieder von einem arroganten Beamten abgebügelt wird. „Aber das hilft.“ Der Juristenrepublik, in der Juristen meist nur Juristen akzeptieren, sei Dank.

Apparently there have been 15 linguists doing this in Switzerland for 30 years now (Nießbrauch has been renamed Nutznießung, for example, although I haven’t checked the date), in contrast to one person in Germany for five years (she doesn’t directly deny that she is a ‘figleaf’).

(Via Handakte WebLAWg)