24. March 2016

Keep calm and translate ‘not … until’ correctly

Recently, I’ve done a quality assessment of an online help from English into German, that is, I was basically checking if translator and proofreader did a good job. Not surprisingly, the technical document included loads of instructions of what to do and what not to do. So the original English text was full of these nice little ‘not… until’ sentences. For example:

The service is not run until you enable it.
It is not displayed until the task is completed.
Changes will not take effect until you click OK.
Copyright: vectorstory - Fotolia

Copyright: vectorstory – Fotolia

The English sentence starts with a ‘not’ but the last part always has a positive touch—thanks to ‘until’. In English, it’s easy enough to understand.

This structure, however, doesn’t work in the German language. If you start translating the first literally (it is NOT displayed), then—unlike in English—you need to end your sentence with another ‘not’. What a pessimistic bunch of people, these Germans!

So in said document—I had the pleasure of proofreading—all these examples contained a double negative. And I wondered why the proofreader didn’t change this because the German reader had to digest stuff like this:

Der Service wird nicht ausgeführt, wenn Sie ihn nicht aktivieren.
Sie wird nicht angezeigt, wenn die Aufgabe nicht abgeschlossen ist.
Die Änderungen werden nicht übernommen, wenn Sie nicht auf „OK“ klicken.

Very wooden and cumbersome in German. Do you also have to read each sentence twice or three times to understand it? Well, me too! It is a bit confusing. And don’t forget that the reader might misunderstand the instructions …

So what’s the magic solution then?

The solution is as simple as can be. The tiny word ‘erst’ does the trick! The rule of thumb: If you spot a ‘not … until’ structure, be an optimist and think of the word ‘erst’ instead of ‘nicht’. Using ‘erst’ is the simplest solution and your translation will sound fine in most cases. Let’s see:

Der Service wird erst ausgeführt, wenn Sie ihn aktivieren.
Sie wird erst angezeigt, wenn die Aufgabe abgeschlossen ist.
Die Änderungen werden erst übernommen, wenn Sie auf „OK“ klicken.

The instructions are now clear, direct and easy to understand for everyone—even without the word ‘nicht’. So avoid the pitfall and just use ‘erst’! You see, there is no need to be afraid of technical English.

Nerdy fact: This structure is called ‘negative adverbial’. The English language knows more of these adverbials, e.g. no sooner … than, barely … when, not once, not since or in no way—to name a few.

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