Month: October 2017

Birdwatching for Translators

Do you know what a twitcher is? No, I don’t mean a twerker. Or a birder? Or an “orni” as they are known in Germany? (Short for ornithologist)

My dad has always been a bit of a birdman in the sense that, if a black shadow ever passed our path in flight, when we were on a walk in the country, his arm would instinctively fly out, holding me back, making me stop to look and listen. As a kid he would go bird nesting (stealing eggs) and I still enjoy hearing his tales of near brushes with wild bulls and angry farmers.


Boy bird nesting by Eric Ravilious

I started bird watching when I realised my dad wasn’t listening to me chitter on about school and friends, because he would stop dead in his tracks at any given moment. And the enjoyment followed when I realised that whatever was getting me down that particular week, the birds were just going about their business, building nests, feeding their young, learning to fly and hunt insects. And that was rather comforting to know somehow…that life just goes on.
Like any form of low-level concentration activity, it stops your brain from worrying. So the time I spent bird watching was automatically time where I was not worrying.

I started to see the parallels between bird watching and meditating when my friends kept trying to urge me to get up really early to “sit” and try to think of nothing. To me that seemed like a royal waste of time. But ask me to get up at 4:30am to take a kayak to a lake to be on the water by 5:30 to “get a bead”* on a white tailed eagle? Now you’re talking.

But as a bird-watching translator things get doubly interesting. Where you see one bird…I see two – through my binoculars, floating on the thermals of two completely different cultures.
I recently saw my very first male linnet close up. So far, so unspectacular. But a twitcher will tell you that a male linnet, despite its rather boring name, looks like it has blood dripping down its chest. Hence, its name in German: “Bluthänfling”, which roughly translates as “bloody skinny thing” – I imagine because the bird literally looks like he’s had a meal of red beets for breakfast and then wiped some on his head for good measure. It’s also known as Flachshänfling (flaxseed being one of its food sources and the reason why it is called linnet – flax is used to make linen).


Although German is often considered to be an ugly language (see the Schadenfreude in those videos that went viral recently showing how Germans can manage to make even the most beautiful word sound like a weapon of mass destruction: butterfly = Schmetterling), it is also the language of philosophy, music and poetry. For example, a yellowhammer in England sings “A little bit of butter and no ––– cheese!” whereas in Germany a Goldammer (note the poetic addition of gold in the name…) sings “Wie wie wie wie hab ich dich ––– liieb!” (How how how how I love you). Nuff said.

Germany is a country so deeply connected to its forested landscapes that 38% of Berlin’s surface area is still made up of woodland and water!** German is truly the language of the poets and thinkers and this poetic nature is also expressed in the descriptive names of its birds.
Learning the bird names in German, after I knew the English ones, made something vividly clear to me: where the Germans tended to categorise birds according to their “spirit” and character, with a dash of humour, the English tended to be much more taxonomic, focussing more an appearance and size.

German Literal English Actual English
Buntspecht Colourful pecker Greater spotted woodpecker
Bachstelze One who stalks the stream Wagtail
Mönchsgrasmücke Monks grass midge Blackcap
Neuntöter Killer of nine Red-backed shrike
Dompfaff Cathedral parson Bullfinch
Haubentaucher Hooded diver Great crested grebe
Klappergrassmücke Rattling grass midge Lesser whitethroat
Nebelkrähe Fog crow Hooded crow
Trauerschnepper Mourning flycatcher Pied flycatcher
Trauerseeschwalbe Lake mourning swallow Black tern

Of course, dig a little deeper and the English language also has some lovely unofficial names – the red-backed shrike, one of my favourite birds because it looks like a bandit with its black eye stripe, is also known as the Butcher bird, for its gruesome habit of impaling the insects it catches on thorns to “mature” awhile, before coming back to eat them later.

There’s nothing more annoying for a literary birdwatcher than to read a sentence like “and a bird flew overhead” or “a bird called in the distance” in the middle of a halfway decent thriller. Even more annoying is Leonard Cohen with his “Bird on a Wire”. I mean, what’s wrong with “sparrow on a wire”. And don’t get me started on Hitchcock’s The Birds. At least the Beatles had the decency to be a bit more specific with Blackbird. Even though I do wonder which blackbird really sings in the dead of night. (Or hark, was it a nightingale?)

You see these are the important issues literary birdwatchers have to deal with. And being a translator only makes things worse. I find it really hard to leave well alone and not add a flourish or two, transforming “a bird flew overhead” into “the velvet rook flew overhead”. Not true to the original, as my teacher would say. Good thing I am usually translating press releases or academic tracts on museum artefacts.

But learning bird names in two languages has given me a new window onto the differences in motivation of the act of naming. Having grown up with both languages I never realised to the full extent “why” different nations write and name. It seems to me, that Italians write simply because they love words. The more the better. Germans write to prove how intelligent they are. The more abstruse the better. The English write to prove how funny they are. The dryer the better. But when it comes to naming birds, Germans reveal their deeply romantic poetical side. Well, at least until we come to the topic of insults!

Time for another chart I think:

German insult Literal translation Bird name
Schnepfe unpleasant unlikeable woman snipe
Blödes Huhn Stupid woman chicken
Dumme Pute Dumb woman turkey
Dumme Gans Dumb woman goose
Rabenmutter Bad mother crow
Eitler Gockel Vain man rooster
Du hast ein Vogel! You’re nuts! “You have a bird!”
Ein schräger Vogel! An eccentric A lopsided bird
Spaßvogel Joker Fun bird
Schnappdrossel Heavy drinking woman liqueur thrush

But whichever language you use, the act of naming is a powerful thing. It usually has two aims: to assert power (naming of chattel and slaves, for example) or to get closer to knowing and loving (trying to describe and identify).

Everyone who has the privilege of speaking more than one language or dialect will know the joy of comparing and “doubly knowing” the nature that surrounds us. Robert MacFarlane, the inspired author of Landmarks and an expert in “knowing and naming”, writes of the deep connection people in Britain had to the natural landscape that surrounded them by way of naming. We can only protect and love what we know. And naming is an intrinsic part of that.


*to get a bead on is orni lingo for “see” (beady eye)
Cf. British Woodland stats: London has 8% woodland, and 11,2% in England as a whole.