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Can Germans Cope with Ambiguity?

The way in which book and film titles are often translated into German has bothered me for some time now, but spotting another such example recently has finally triggered this blog post and an attempt to explain this phenomenon.

I have recently enjoyed reading the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer and while I was trying to purchase the last part (in English) on the Amazon.de I couldn’t help but notice the German translation of the title: Bis(s) zum Morgengrauen. It made me grind my teeth. Bis(s)?? It’s a play on words which turns an innocent preposition into the noun ‘bite’ (der Biss) – as if the book wasn’t already the most hyped vampire story on the market and required hints regarding its content? The English title contains no such puns, so why employ it here? It somehow makes it sound more trivial, gimmicky and lacking elegance. OK, I admit this is no high literature, but still… why would you do that?

biss twilight

So I started thinking of other examples where the translator (or publisher?) decided that the original title wasn’t clear enough and required the inclusion of a ‘plot summary’ to avoid any surprises. The premise seems to be that a reader/viewer must be informed and forewarned, in case they didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. Ambiguity is clearly unwelcome in Germany.

Below are some classic examples of what I am talking about:

  • EN: Bridget Jones Diary – DE: Schokolade zum Frühstück: Das Tagebuch der Bridget Jones (Chocolate for Breakfast)
  • EN: The Life of Pi – DE: Schiffbruch mit Tigger (Ship-wrecked with a Tiger)
  • FR: La Reine Margot/EN: Queen Margot – DE: Die Bartholomäusnacht (Bartholomew’s Night)
  • EN: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – DE: Supergute Tage oder Die sonderbare Welt des Christopher Boone (Supergood Days or the Strange World of Christopher Boone)

  • In the case of film titles, it seems that the standard thing is to either keep the original or translated title with the addition of a subtitle, which should come with a spoiler warning! Below I provide the German titles only as it is obvious which films they refer to. The subtitle in each of these cases does not exist in English, but has been added in the German version:

  • DE: Avatar: Aufbruch nach Pandora (Departure for Pandora, this subtitle does not seem very accurate to describe a brutal conquest attempt of a planet)
  • DE: Snatch: Schweine und Diamanten (Pigs and Diamonds)
  • DE: Jerry Maguire: Spiel des Lebens (The Game of a Lifetime)
  • DE: Operation Walküre: Das Stauffenberg Attentat (Stauffenberg’s Assassination Attempt)
  • DE: The Motorcycle Diaries: Die Reise des jungen Che (The Journey of the Young Che)

  • So why does the German audience require this extra information? The answer may be: because of the high Uncertainty Avoidance Index.

    This takes us to Geert Hofstede, a Dutch sociologist, who between the years 1967 and 1973, conducted a large scale study of IBM employees in 70 countries to establish the values and beliefs shared on the national level. On the basis of this study, he created four dimensions of culture (later extended to five, each scored as a rating on the scale 0-100), which constituted his model of culture. Despite many criticisms of his approach and conclusions, Hofstede remains to be one of the most frequently quoted cultural anthropologist and his survey was adapted and applied in many other fields, including cross-cultural business relations and marketing.

    Based on Hofstede’s study, the Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI), also referred to as ambiguity tolerance, reflects the ‘extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations’ (Hofstede, p.113). Countries with high uncertainty avoidance index tend to have more laws and rules to eliminate what is unpredictable and people tend to avoid risk-taking. Low uncertainty avoidance cultures tend to be more tolerant and open to adventures, and life in such countries tends to be less rule-governed.

    Germany, while not at the highest end of the scale – has a UAI score of 65, which is considerably higher than the UK’s score of 35 or the USA’s 46. In terms of language, this would explain the German’s need for disambiguation, clarity and information as all of these eliminate risk. According to a study by Singh & Pereira, the use of local metaphors, puns and idioms is also a result of the rootedness in traditions and ritual, which typifies high uncertainty avoidance cultures (p. 103).

    So, are we getting somewhere here? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. This hypothesis still does not explain why in Poland, which has an even higher UAI score (78), title translations do not show a similar tendency as in German and are usually very faithful to the original. Is faithfulness in translation also some expression of risk-avoidance (as opposed to a more creative approach), but in another cultural context? Perhaps this calls for a more in-depth comparative study before we jump to any conclusions. We can however speculate.

    Bis(s) später!

    Works cited:

    Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations. Sage Publications.

    Singh, N., & Pereira, A. (2005). The Culturally Customized Web Site. Customizing Web Sites for the Global Marketplace. Butterworth Heinemann.

    One Response to “Can Germans Cope with Ambiguity?”

    1. Sandra Z Says:

      Hey Alicja – awesome blog post! 🙂
      – and as you probably know – avoiding disambiguities does not only apply to movie titles – but the way they are dubbed! it’s sometimes mind-boggling! hahaha – really enjoyed this article!

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