WAAT #02: Long Words and Sentences (e.g. “Kraftfahrzeughaftpflichtversicherung”)


Linguistic misadventures with long words and run-on sentences that could tell entire stories in themselves.

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In 1993, I had moved to Berlin, Germany to work at Siemens for a few months as an engineering apprentice. My job in the quality department involved doing all kinds of destructive and non-destructive testing procedures for defects, from hairline cracks to incorrect dimensions, in gas turbine components. And I had to do it all in a language that I had barely studied in the two years prior. So, while I was making my way around Berlin, getting hopelessly lost in eastern and western German dialects and all the immigrant slang that had made its way into them, I was also trying to decipher convoluted compound words from technical German manuals and reports. Years later, I heard this joke (Mark Twain, I think) about one of the longest German compound words, “Kraftfahrzeughaftpflichtversicherung”, which means “motor vehicle indemnity insurance”. Twain said that it was a “a word so long it has a perspective.” In fact, that’s not even the longest German word ever.


I was recalling my own linguistic misadventures in German during the above work stint while recently translating some rather long run-on sentences from Gujarati to English. As I shared on Twitter, the Gujarati run-on sentence is a beautiful beast of its own with many intricate sub-clauses, flourishes, and embellishments. You could tell an entire story with one such sentence. Love to read them. Hate to translate them. Afraid I’ll internalize them in my own English writing. Turns out, this isn’t just me. A handful of other literary translators chimed in about Hindi, Urdu, Bangla, and more in that thread.

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So my question to you this week is about run-on sentences. Scroll to the end to share your responses.

Speaking of replies, thank you to all who did reply to last week’s newsletter with some gems. I’d like to pass on one such from the translator, Subha Pande. She shared this Linkedin post, which is in Hindi so my apologies to those who won’t get a decent English translation through their platform, written by Anchal Saxena. It’s about localization versus translation. But it covers a lot of ground, actually, about publishing, reviewing, reading, and more. No easy answers but plenty of food for thought. Thanks, Subha.

Thanks also to all of you who sent in questions via email and social media related to translation and the translating life. I’ve saved them all and will definitely address each one in the coming weeks. If I’m not smart enough to answer a particular question, I’ll ask a fellow literary translator to weigh in. So stay tuned for that. Oh, and in a couple of months, I’m planning to post a list of translation-related resources I’ve found useful and invite folks to add to it as well.

I want to close with information about an upcoming virtual conference where I’m on a panel titled ‘Translation as Activism and Self-care’ with three other translators: Wendy Call, Rajiv Mohabir, and Jenny Kellogg. It’ll air on Sunday, January 23, and you can register here with Writers & Books if you like. The complete line-up is pretty terrific. A big thanks to Sejal Shah, the writer who recommended this panel (among others) and invited us to be on it. The questions were thought-provoking and I’ve saved them and my responses because I hope to share some of them in upcoming newsletters as well.

Please do share your response to this week’s question: what’s the longest sentence (doesn’t have to be translated but that would be ideal) that you’ve read and loved? Would you mind sharing that with me/us? Also, if you don’t mind including: why does that sentence mean so much to you? You can share it on social media (links below) or just reply to this newsletter. If you tag me, I’ll respond and share it on.

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Jenny Bhatt is an author, a literary translator, and a book critic. She teaches creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas and the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship Program. Sign up for her free newsletters, We Are All Translators and/or Historical Fiction Craft Notes. She lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Texas.

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