Defining Terms

Adventures in Translation

Yesterday, I came across this wonderful sentence while reading “Das Parfum” by Patrick Süskind:

Und wenn er auch wußte, daß er den Besitz dieses Duftes mit seinem anschließenden Verlust würde entsetzlich teuer bezahlen müssen, so schienen ihm doch Besitz und Verlust begehrenswerter als der lapidare Verzicht auf beides.

This can be roughly translated as:

And even knowing that the possession of this scent would require him to subsequently pay the terribly high price of its loss, the possession and loss seemed more desirable than the lapidary relinquishment of both.

The interesting part of the sentence is “daß er den Besitz dieses Duftes mit seinem anschließenden Verlust würde entsetzlich teuer bezahlen müssen”. In a word-for-word translation, this is “that he the possession of this scent with its subsequent loss would terribly expensive pay have to”.

In general, English and German have similar sentence structure and word order. But occasionally you see a German sentence that makes you think the author took a sentence, tied it in a knot, and threw it onto the page. Translation of such sentences requires not only translating the meaning into English, but untying the knot so that the English-speaking reader can parse it. And that’s the fun part.