On translating WW2 historical documents:


A word about translation

Customarily, people tend to think of translation as a straightforward, mechanical, and repetitive process that is actually very simple as long as the translator happens to know two languages.

Some people even believe that all it takes for a workable translation is a dictionary of languages A and B and some basic high school knowledge of the language they are translating from. In any case, translation is often regarded as a necessary evil with little actual significance attached, a simple task where nothing much could possibly go wrong, and which overall requires little qualification, knowledge, or practice – except an understanding and command of the 2 languages involved.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

Translation is communication

Anyone who has ever worked in a large organization, where it was necessary to rely on people to pass on pieces of information by word of mouth, will know this: If this information was passed along by more than three individuals (sometimes even one intermediary is enough), most likely what the intended recipient finally learned was hardly the exact same message intended to be conveyed.

What happened along the way? Well, every intermediary "translated" that message. Since it is passed on by word of mouth, this means that everyone along the line puts it into their own words. This is in fact a form of translation: Information received in one set of words is abstracted to the actions, items, requests etc. that the recipient of the message thinks this information means and then rephrased according to what the message was understood to mean. So, in passing on the information, the person “translates” the abstract concepts back into the same language, by using slightly different words. Whether such rephrasing happens in one and the same language, or into another language, is actually a secondary matter. In either case, whoever communicates the message puts it into their own words.

Experience shows that doing this over and again, for one and same initial message, and within one and the same language, between multiple people, will inevitably result in alteration, falsification, or loss of the information as it is being passed on. The only way to help prevent – at least avoid – this is by exercising extreme discipline, learning a text by heart, or passing the information on in writing.

Why the military has written orders, recital of commands

This is why in the military, orders are generally written down, and spelled out. The recipient of an orally conveyed order is generally obliged to repeat it, in the exact words, and admonished to pass on the order, using those exact same words.

But when translating from one language to another, this is not possible. Moreover, different languages have their nuances, idiosyncracies, cultural context, and ambiguities – an exact 1-to-1 translation of complete sentences is rarely in the cards. A mediator who understands these things for both languages, source and target language, is needed: the translator.

Translation involves abstraction of meaning

Written translation is very much like passing on information by word of mouth within one and the same language. Obviously, the information cannot be passed on “as is”, quoted in writing, because the whole point of translation is that the information is to be written in a different language than the intended recipient of said information understands.

The translator has to abstract the information found in the source language text - the original text. The translator must then put this abstract information into another language - the target language.

Meaning is translated, not words

So, the translator must pay attention to grammar and spelling, differences in sentence structure between languages, recognize idioms and connotations in the source text and find the appropriate equivalent in the target language, in short, the translator must transscribe the meaning of the original text.

Meaning arises from context. Simply looking up words in a dictionary and placing them in sequence is not enough to accomplish a proper translation. How these words fit together in a given sequence is what generates meaning of the individual words from context. And there are many different ways of fitting the words together, in order to still carry the exact same message.

Complex translations are usually unique

Experience shows that a second translator translating the same source text would invariably come up with a different translation rendering for the same original. For a complex sentence, such variation is usually substantial. Still, both translations can still be objectively correct, and understood well.

In fact, it is extremely rare, and highly improbable, for 2 translators, working independent of each other, to come up with an identical – or even similar – translation for one and the same source language sentence. A sequence of “exact match sentences” across two originally conceived translations of the same source text really never happens.

Translators are authors

Translation is creative work. From a legal standpoint, translators are authors. Every originally conceived translation is copyrighted intellectual property in its own right.

By the act of translation, a new, separate copyrighted work comes into being, which is unique and independent in form from the source text.

However, for this apply, the translation must actually be originally conceived. It must not be an edited version of another translation.

Given the above, any degree of similarity between two translations of the same source text, published in sequence, hints at plagiarism. Any such similarity indicates that the translated text published in sequence is in fact an edited version of that very first translation originally published beforehand … and not an actual translation of the source text, originally conceived independent of the first translation already available.


"Nuts" - Battle of the Bulge

A well-known but often misappropriated WWII anecdote may illustrate well enough to what degree context matters in translation: During the Battle of the Bulge (known as the “Ardennes offensive” from the German perspective) a German commander, General der Panzertruppe Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz†, commanding the XLVII. Panzer Korps, sent the American commander of the 101st Airborne Division a note. In this note, written on an (English) field typewriter, he stated that the Americans were surrounded and urged them to surrender, specifically for the benefit of the civilians remaining inside the town of Bastogne, where the US 101st Airborne Division had entrenched itself.

Alas, the American commander, Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe† replied - using only one English word: "Nuts".

The Germans checked their dictionary and found, well "nuts" (the food staple). They did not recognize the connotation of this word in cultural context of American life. More importantly, further explanation, garnered with various expletives, was needed to get the actual point across. Without such insult-laden clarification, the Germans would have failed to realize that the American commander had no intention of vacating the town of Bastogne.


German surrender ultimatum Dec. 22, 1944 | Image credit: © U.S. Army / army.mil

Read the detailed account of the "Nuts" incident during the "Battle of the Bulge".

WW2 era translations

Not least because so many readers, aficionados, and WW2 history buffs are interested in the German perspective during WW2, and in various German WW2 era armored vehicles, weapons, and military affairs, German originals translated into English are in rather high demand.

Many WW2 book translations of originals previously published in German are good sellers when translated into English. Translating WW2 books (German to English) is one good way to make new book titles available to the English-speaking audience.

Likewise, WW2 history articles are frequently translated into English. A precise understanding of military terminology and specifically tank terminology is where translation from German to English becomes important.

Translation from German to English is of course essential for the purpose of disseminating German WW2 veterans’ eyewitness accounts for historical analysis, if such analysis is to be carried out and presented to an English-speaking audience. There is no more immediate and no more realistic evidence of the German perspective than these first-hand accounts by men who were right there at the front.

The author of the most monumental book (1000+ pages) on WW2 history, namely "Kursk: Battle of Prokhorovka" made use of such first-hand information.

Author: author_07Published: July 27, 2023

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