A few weeks ago, when I fact checked a story in German for the Swiss SonntagsZeitung, I faced a problem: Most sources were American, so I had done most of my reporting in English; but to fact check, I had to back translate my own story to English to send off a quick round of fact checking emails, and translate any corrections back to German.
That made me wonder: What about other challenges when reporting and writing in two languages?
Translating your own article is certainly one of them. A few years ago, I wrote an article on the limitations of epidemiological studies for the Los Angeles Times. I was later able to sell it to a German and a Swiss newspaper. My Swiss editor said I should just add some Swiss-specific reporting to make it more relevant to their readers. That should be easy, I thought. I just needed to translate the article, add the reporting and would be done.
Piece of cake, right?
Wrong. I soon realized that my understanding of what it means to translate was completely off: What I really needed to do was a complete rewrite—in German.
I am not the only one who realizes that that’s not an easy thing to do. Josef Joffe, who is publisher/editor of the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit and regularly writes in English as well, says he hates translating himself from English into German and vice versa. “Basically, perfectly bilingual people write differently in each language,” he says. “The architecture of thinking is different. A sentence with many sub-clauses sounds just horrible in the other language if rendered literally rather than being deconstructed and put together in the rhythm and sequence of the other language.”
One difference I noticed is that Germans seem to use colons more often. Sometimes, they appear after a single word, like in this case, taken from the German version of my article: “Oder: Kaffeetrinken verringert das Enddarmkrebsrisiko.” (“Or: Drinking coffee reduces the risk of colon cancer.”) Maybe that’s why I occasionally use more colons in my English-language articles than my editors would like.
Another challenge are words that can’t be directly translated. Joffe mentions “ballpark figure,” which doesn’t mean “Spielplatz-Zahl,” but “ungefähr.” Quirin Schiermeier, a Munich-based correspondent for Nature, who conducts some of his interviews in German, mentions the German word “originell,” which he says played a role in a libel case he fought and won. It’s fascinating to read the judgement, because it dissects, in excruciating detail, Schiermeier’s reporting process, down to how he translated certain words from his German interviews into English.
The word “originell,” he says, is tricky because it has different shades of meaning than the English “original.” Schiermeier’s German source used it with an ironic undertone, and according to the judgement, Schiermeier took it to mean “odd,” or “unusual.” Then in his article, he used it to mean “original,” when he wrote that “a small minority of physicists cautiously recognizes the originality” of the ideas of the person the source was talking about. “Idiomatic delicacies and any air of irony do get lost if you do interviews in one language and write stories in another,“ he says. “The problem is that people are using idioms that might later be difficult to render into English.”
John Riceburg, a Berlin-based journalist who writes in English and German, says German legal terms can also be a challenge: Recently, he interviewed young Spanish teachers in Berlin, who teach in English. The interview was mostly in Spanish, but they were using German for all the legal terms that don’t have precise equivalents in other languages, he says. One example: “Yo soy angestellte Lehrkraft,” which means “I am a teacher without a tenured position.”
Choosing the language of the interview
Because of such challenges, I often try to do my interviews in the language I am writing. So if the article I am writing is in English, I try to interview sources in English, even if they are German. That’s also helpful if I am dealing with technical subjects, because many technical terms are in English anyway (like “PCR”), and I want to make sure I get the terms correctly. The quotes can be a bit awqward, but at least I know that I am quoting exactly what they said.
Anne Sasso (bio), who writes in English, says she always tries to start her interviews in English. “But if they’re struggling with a particular concept or idea,” she adds, “I’ll ask them to explain it in French (my second language) or Spanish (my third). Then I’ll try to cover the ground again in English. The goal is to get some usable quotes in English, but often a lot gets paraphrased.”
But Hannah Hoag (bio), a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose second language is French, says not interviewing sources in their own language can come with its own problems. “The quotes are just not very good,” she says, adding that when the source isn’t using their first language, “the biggest challenges are making sure you understand nuance and capture emotion.” Hannah, who writes in English, says that her ability to speak French has given her better access to researchers and stories than other reporters in North American/English media might have.
I’ve also found that being able to interview sources in their native German can be a big advantage, especially when reporting stories that involve many sources who aren’t used to speaking English, and when dealing with less technical topics.
But Schiermeier says his attempts to interview Germans in German are sometimes met with resistance. “Some German-language scientists and colleagues prefer to talk in English with me,” he says. “People just accept that the language of science is English—even if it’s bad English. To me it’s pretty odd to speak with a fellow German in English rather than in the language we master more easily.”
Sometimes, Hannah says, she does bilingual interviews. But that creates its own challenges: “My notes would be baffling to most (although I understand them) because I can’t type as quickly in French, and I wind up with all these non-words that I recognize as being some sort of French shorthand,” she says.
So far, I’ve only mentioned language issues, but I’ve also encountered cultural differences when reporting in different languages. For example, I learned from my Swiss editor that, in Switzerland, I need to check quotes with my sources if they request it. As I discuss in my chapter in The Science Writers’ Handbook, that’s usually not acceptable in the United States. If they said it, it’s fair game, though you should check the facts within your quotes by paraphrasing them to your source.
Do you report and write in different languages? What are your experiences?
Image credit Veronica Semeco