Translation Challenge: Oscar Wilde from English to German

Translation of the week comes from Emma Armitage

My Facebook page reached 300 Likes today and to show my appreciation of so many people liking Fluent Language Tuition, I decided to give a price to number 300. As it turns out, the honour went to my own student Emma Armitage who didn't miss the chance to set me a challenge. Here is her chosen line:

"Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught."

It is a quote from the wise Oscar Wilde. As with all quotes, any good translator knows that they have been translated before, so I will attempt the challenge on my own and conclude with a comparison of my own work with what other translators came up with.

I really really enjoyed this challenge, as it allowed me to go a little bit linguist and remember why I took Translation Studies as my Masters subject. It's fun to get to know these intricacies and investigate whether meanings can be made or lost in translation. Should you wish to get into this subject too, try this famous book my lecturer wrote.

Core Vocabulary

education - die Bildung
admirable - bewundernswert
to remember - sich erinnern, sich in Erinnerung rufen
nothing worth knowing - nichts Wissenswertes
from time to time - ab und zu
to teach - lehren
to know - wissen

English structures in German

The "it's a thing" can be quite tricky to translate into German. You could go literal and call the thing a "Ding" or a "Sache", but considering the length of this sentence I'm worried about clumsiness.

Then there's "it is well to". I never hear that said in England at all, and having lived here for 10 years I trust that that makes it a word structure dating back to Wilde's time. When's that again? 1920s? I looked it up. Turns out I did well to look it up, since he died in 1900. My historical German isn't amazing but after some thought I have decided that going with the generic pronoun "man" in German will be quite nice for making an active sentence structure. There's a German way of saying this. Score.

Choose from 3 translators' versions

Both language learners and translators know that any way of expressing something is just one way of doing it. Every language has its own word and its own world view built in, just like Eskimos and their famous words for snow.

First let's start with a contribution from my twitter friends at Wannateach (follow them! @wannateach13). Here are their credentials:

And their team created the following quote:

Bildung ist eine bewundernswerte Sache, aber von Zeit zu Zeit ist es gut sich daran zu erinnern, dass nichts, was es wert ist gewusst zu werden gelehrt werden kann.

You will recognise the "Sache" word there, as a translation for "an admirable thing", and I see that they went with "es ist gut" for "it is well to" which actually words very nicely. This is a translation that goes from word to word, nice and literal, and no over thinking (you can tell I may be guilty of that).

Secondly, let's have my own version:

Die Bildung ist eine bewundernswerte Sache, jedoch tut man ab und zu gut daran sich daran zu erinnern, dass nichts Wissenswertes gelehrt werden kann.

There is also "Nothing worth knowing" translated as (literally) "nothing which is worth being known" rather than my own "nothing know-worthy". You can see that I went for a short sentence over faith to the original. Maybe I'm losing a bit of impact with it. What do you think?

An alternative would be to say "nichts wirklich Wissenswertes" which means "nothing truly know-worthy".

And here's the official translation from "The Critic as Artist" (where this quote came from). The translator is Volker Oldenburg, who also translated the David Mitchell novels into German.

Bildung ist bewundernswert, aber man sollte sich von Zeit zu Zeit daran erinnern, dass das wirklich Wissenswerte nicht gelehrt werden kann.

He did away with the Sache! I considered that myself actually, and it's very nice indeed. You'll also spot a "man" and the "wirklich" considered previously.

Translating in language learning

Now, which one do you prefer? Does it make a difference? For those who truly value language and words, it's obvious that every word counts.

If you feel encouraged to try your hand at some translations, go for it! Translating brings you in close contact with the language and allows learners to take as much time as required to get the expressions right. Writing and translating are great practice, and will leave no question unanswered.

You can read more about how to make the most of every aspect of language in my new book Listen, Read, Speak, Write: Fluency Made Achievable.