A plague of tapeworm sentences

Brian Bloch ponders the convoluted tangle that permeates scholarly German writing

June 12, 2014

Two German journalists, Lena Greiner and Friederike Ott, recently published a book on the excessively complicated and convoluted writing style used by many German academics. In Simulieren geht über Studieren (the title is a phrase that says, in effect, that faking it is better than doing real work), the authors claim that too many Teutonic professors try to dazzle students and other readers with various forms of linguistic “cruelty”. These include notorious Bandwurmsätze (tapeworm sentences); using a plethora of non-German words, mainly from English but also terms adopted from other languages; and several other techniques that look impressive but really only obfuscate and frustrate.

As an example, Greiner and Ott give the original German of the sentence below, which I’ve translated as clearly as the text allows:

“There is therefore a scientific development that goes into both breadth and depth, ideally taking into account the historicality of objects and their conception, that is, the history of the subject itself, which progresses through a process of discovery related to narrow innovation zones, in turn contrasting with what is not yet known as a clearly defined activity.”

The point is made that ironically, this German sentence was written by a professor of literature, who really ought to know better. Why, lament Greiner and Ott, can the ideas not be formulated more clearly, succinctly and comprehensibly? Probably, they conclude, because it would then seem rather banal and obvious.

Many academics and students complain that Germans have a tendency to write with unnecessary and deliberate complexity to try to make their work appear more dauntingly intellectual. However, deliberate linguistic snobbery is not the whole story.

My years of translation have revealed that many sentences in German are simply not clear. It does seem intrinsic to the German language, or to the way it is learned and used, that there are often long sentences. I once translated an article that contained at least one horrendous “tapeworm” sentence per page. Yet shorter sentences often fail to make complete sense, and the process of translation sometimes reveals weaknesses in the original.

Furthermore, this is not unique to Germany. In my international editing activities, I frequently work with authors to reformulate sentences so that they are clear and unambiguous. This extends to work from non-German Europe, Asia and South America.

Finally, there have been many occasions over the years when I have edited sentences or a passage, only to suddenly realise that it is actually a quotation from a native English speaker, and sometimes a truly renowned one. Undoubtedly, academic or research skills and linguistic ones are quite distinct, just as outstanding researchers may be terrible teachers.

Getting back to the German professors, the allegations made by Greiner and Ott are surely justified. This is confirmed by my own experiences with translating excruciatingly long sentences that must be broken down into three shorter ones to make sense. But how much of this is showing off and how much is inherent to the German literary or academic soul is open to debate. After all, good writing is influenced by many factors, including a sound general education, the environment in which one grows up, as well as conscientiousness, motivation and, not least, natural talent.

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