Some words, no matter how trivial they may seem in the original language, do not lend themselves to direct translation. Kyung Hun Oh, our in-house translator, talks about some challenges of his daily work.
Text: Kyung Hun Oh
Photo: "Altbauten" in Berlin's Schöneberg area © DOM publishers
Altbau: The word Altbau, literally ‘old building’, is a perfectly common word in German, denoting a Gründerzeit-era building from the late 19th or early 20th century. The word carries several connotations, and the translation must reflect the sense being emphasised. A text might be highlighting the fact that an ‘Altbau’ is more fashionable to live in than a contemporary building; it might be exploring how building practices and aesthetics changed after the Second World War; or it might be describing how an old building is being expanded as part of a renovation project. Possible translations thus include ‘period building’, ‘pre-war building’, and ‘existing building’.
Sortenrein: In some building projects, the architect might choose to combine materials in a way that is sortenrein – literally ‘pure in kind’. This means the materials are kept in separate layers without the use of glue so they can be reused. The word has no direct equivalent in English and would warrant an explanation in a subordinate clause.
Vorzeigearchitektur vs. Gebrauchsarchitektur: These two terms came up in an essay I recently translated. Literally, the former means something like ‘showpiece architecture’; the latter something like ‘use architecture’. The former implies 'prestigious', 'iconic', 'recognisable', and 'unique'; the latter implies 'ordinary', 'functional', 'plain'. I chose to translate the two terms as ‘landmark architecture’ and ‘ordinary architecture’.