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Notícia15 de setembro de 20205 min de leitura

Gained in translation: why mist can sometimes turn into rubbish

Picture of an actress in Startrek

Video excerpts: Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 4, Episode 5 (English/German), 1990, (c) Paramount/CBS

Dr Beverly Crusher is not to be envied: First, one by one, the crew members of the starship Enterprise D are disappearing, and then, it’s not even possible to call out to other ships for help. When Dr Crusher orders the ‘viewscreen’ to be switched on, all she can see is a dimly lit ... misty something. She calls out: ‘Computer, what is that mist I am seeing?’

On the surface, a very simple task for a translator: no complex linguistic structures, no ambiguities, no unanswered questions. But, wait! Apparently, it all went wrong, at least according to numerous comments from the German fan community. [Tip: The web pages are in German; the comments mentioned can be found by searching for ‘Mist’.] So, what went wrong? Well, here is the German dubbed version:

Computer, was ist das für ein Mist, den ich da sehe!’

She says something like mist here, doesn’t she? She absolutely does – but Mist in German means ‘dung’, or, in this context, rather ‘rubbish, garbage’. Mist should be Nebel in German, shouldn’t it? It’s clear to everyone: The translator must have made a grave mistake!


The following thoughts have arisen out of various discussions with colleagues and students. The purpose in laying them out is not to sort out what really happened, but to explore the kind of reasoning that could have led to the ultimate decision for the German dubbed version.

Formal factors

One thing not to lose out of sight when translating for dubbing is the need for at least a certain degree of lip synchronicity. When a pairing such as mist/Mist presents itself, involving two (almost) identically pronounced words formed with pretty much the same lip movement, then this is a strong formal argument for using the paired word, providing that the choice will be semantically plausible in the given context.

In the short YouTube video linked above, lip movement may not seem important, given the camera perspective, but in a dubbing studio with a large screen and high resolution, the situation may look quite different.

Emotional factors

The emotional state of the character is also relevant in the situation. Dr Crusher is clearly frustrated. All the people she works with on a daily basis have disappeared, and the universe is about to collapse. She cannot explain what is happening and the viewscreen is not providing any useful information as to the whereabouts of the ship.

In such a scene, mist can be an inspiration for the German Mist, which is not only lip-synchronous, but which better transports the emotional state of Dr Crusher than would the use of the default translation, Nebel. And, as the ‘mist’ has no further relevance for the development of the story, the parameter space shifts towards other translation options.

Relationship between text and image

Not only does the ‘mist’ play no role in the rest of the story, but it is not even easily discernible as such. Whatever the viewscreen is showing, it would be hard to identify it if it were not clearly named: You could just as well ask what that strange light is that is coming from that one corner.

The English variant shifts the focus (away from the light) and pre-empts an interpretation (the pale light is a nebula), whereas in the German variant, no perspective is construed. But what becomes more apparent in German is that whatever the viewscreen is showing, it is not what Dr Crusher expected – after all, when the viewscreen allows a glimpse outside the Enterprise, both she and the audience are usually looking at either a field of stars or the crew of some other starship.

Translation or dubbing decision?

Last but not least, we have to ask whether the shift from mist to Mist happened during translation or maybe somewhere else: in the dubbing studio. Did the translation initially contain the variant Nebel instead of Mist? Was there a problem with the timing, was a shorter variant (one vs. two syllables) necessary? Or, did the translated sentence just not fit the character, who had been dubbed by the same person for years, during which time the concept for the character had evolved? Was the English original an inspiration and mist sounded so good that, after a brief discussion, Mist was chosen instead of Nebel? We may never find out, but the possibility exists.

All but normative

The image many people have of translation is that it simply involves the advanced use of dictionaries. Of course, dictionaries are indeed an important tool for translators, but unfortunately, this narrow view results in a very normative stance on translation, as witnessed by the never-ending topos of the ‘correct’ translation. While there may in fact be misleading, incorrect and simply wrong translations out there, the spectrum extending in the other direction is very broad. After all, what is a correct translation? One that is based on the first option given in some dictionary, or one that is (at the least) just as entertaining, informative, etc. as the original? If it had not been for the existence of the original, would anyone have noticed a ‘problem’ with the Mist variant in German?

‘Lost in translation’ is a common phrase, but ‘gained in translation’ should become just as common. Translation enriches our culture, technology and economy in many ways, by bringing in new ideas, by enabling collaboration, etc. And, from a less lofty perspective, translators are sometimes able to reveal previously unrecognized nuances. The example discussed here should provide for an excellent case-in-point.

My thanks go out to Jonatan Jalle Steller for creating the video excerpts and to Cynthia Dyre for revising the English version.

This blog entry is largely based on a German entry which first appeared in the LingDrafts blog:

Informação detalhada

Data de publicação
15 de setembro de 2020
  • Dutch
  • English
Categoria EMT
  • Translation issues