German indirect discourse in reports and its translation

Boston                                                                                                                                                     (c) Sarah Hampelmann
Most people fluent in German encounter indirect discourse in print media when the author distinguishes his or her own statements in the body of the text from those of another person by using Konjunktiv I to "report" the other person's statements. This is also the case discussed by most grammar books on German indirect discourse.

As a professional translator, the situation is not much different. It is fairly rare for documents to contain such reported discourse and, when it does occur, it usually appears in a form that presents no problems for translation. The most typical case is governed indirect discourse (s/he said that...) which makes it very clear that the relative clause following this is attributed to s/he, not the author.

In literary fiction, the situation is much more complicated. Starting in the 19th century, authors such as Goethe, Fontane, etc. began to adopt a form, similar to in England (e.g., Austen) and France (e.g., Flaubert), called erlebte Rede and which we call narrated monologue or style indirect libre in English. This form of representing discourse (in German and English) did not differ from the indicative (i.e. normal) past tense. In a narrative told primarily in the past tense, the boundary between the narrator's narration and the character's thoughts/discourse was blurred. Different from English, however, German governed indirect discourse (s/he said/thought that..) generally retained the Konjunktiv I form (for more on this topic, including Russian indirect discourse, see publications under the tab on the right side of this blog).

Outside of literature, however, German grammar has largely retained the form of Konjunktiv I for the reporting of discourse. This applies to both governed indirect discourse and erlebte Rede/narrated monologue. Furthermore, although rare, I come across cases where reports citing other reports use indirect discourse to present the content of previous material. A current case is particularly interesting in this regards. Basically, the situation looks like this:

- Company A went bankrupt.
- Germany and a state in Germany provided guarantees and loan facilities.
- To arrange the guarantees and loan facilities, auditors, engineering offices, etc. were engaged to prepare reports.
- After the company went bankrupt, Germany and the state engaged another company to prepare a report on the previous reports to determine whether there were any flaws, liability, etc.

It is the last report that I am translating. It is essential a summary review of the all the preceding reports and contains some statements by the authors. This review is prepared in both the present and past tense. The authors' statements appear in the present and past tense. And these statements generally refer to passages that are cited indirectly from the preceding report, i.e. in indirect discourse with Konjunktiv I. Here are some typical examples.

A case of clarity with governed indirect discourse:

So wird ausgeführt, dass der aktuelle Rückstand nur zum Teil aus dem erhöhten Ressourceneinsatz der Fertigung der Fähren resultiere.

He states that the current backlog only resulted in part from the increase in the deployment of resources for the production of the ferries.


Ungeachtet dieser etwas unklaren Begründung bestätigte jedoch der Sachverständige, dass die Überplanung der Bauabläufe realistisch sei und zum Ende hin sogar noch Reserven enthalten würden.

Irrespective of this somewhat unclear reasoning, the expert confirmed, however, that the overhauled plan for the construction processes was realistic and would even result in reserves at the en.

But when the text shifts from governed indirect discourse to so-called narrated monologue (erlebte Rede, style indirect libre) in a text where the authors also describe events in the present ("so wird ausgeführt" and past (bestätigte) tense, the representation of indirect discourse becomes problematic:

Bezüglich der Liquiditätsrisiken hieß die Analyse weiter, dass die XXX GmbH aufgrund der schwierigen Unternehmenssituation geplante Abschlüsse von Neuaufträgen um mehrere Wochen verschoben habe. Die Summe von Einzahlungen aus Neuaufträgen bis Jahresende verringere sich dadurch gegenüber dem Reporting Mai 2012 von rund 185 Mio. EUR auf 60 Mio. EUR.

The second sentence is clearly attributable to the "Analyse", which is a report. The shift in the verbs to Konjunktiv I indicates that the authors of this analysis are citing parts of another report. Without some form of identification, however, it will be very difficult for the reader to know this in English:

With regard to the liquidity risks, the analysis also stated that XXX GmbH had postponed the planned completion of new orders by multiple weeks due to the company's difficult situation. As compared to the report in May 2012, the total incoming payments from new orders through the end of the year fell from roughly €185 million to €60 million.

The second sentence could be considered a factual statement by the authors of this summary review in English, although it is clearly attributable to the authors of the analysis in German. Shifting the tenses to the present does not help either, however, since the authors of the general review also make statements in the present. This raises the question of how we can signify that this second sentence belongs to the cited report. I see the options as:

i. transpose (shift) the tense, add "according to" and  the name of the origin
ii. transpose (shift) the tense and add quotation marks to the indirect discourse portion
iii. use the untransposed tense for all indirect discourse with quotations or signifiers such as "according to", "they write", etc.

I have used the first two approaches in the past. As always, there are advantages and drawbacks. The "according to" approach is very clear; the disadvantage is, obviously, that it can become quite repetitive if there are a lot of citations. The second option is quite neat, almost literary in its efficiency, but lacks the clarity of the first. Since these passages with indirect discourse always follow governed indirect discourse (as above), it should be clear that the quotation marks refer to the source referred to in the governed indirect discourse, but at first glance they still seem to come out of nowhere. It should be added, though, that there is no other logical signified for them in this context.  The third option is clear, but messy as a result of the additions and verbosity, yet could certainly be considered to a limited extent.
Obviously, the skopos needs to be taken into account in such a report. It is very different from literary fiction. The differentiation between the reviewing author's statements and statements made by authors in the cited work is critical, especially if a difference is being made between them. This is why the method of replicating indirect discourse in literary fiction and sometimes in the media cannot be considered in this case. Ultimately, the decision on how to handle this lies with the translator, as there are no commonly accepted rules in the translation sphere. This should not be regarded as a problem, but rather, similar to comma rules, as an area for the translator to explore and consider the various options the English language offers.

Henry Whittlesey
February 2015

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