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How to speak Austrian in English
Maintaining cultural identity in global communication

How did the Österreich Lexikon, written in German (the national language of Austria) mainly for an Austrian readership, become the Encyclopedia of Austria on-line information retrieval system written in English for a global audience on the worldwide web?

The Österreich Lexikon was originally a 2-volume book published to celebrate 1000 years of the existence of Austria. And this is what it is about: a detailed collection of knowledge about Austrian history, culture, politics, geography, society over the last 1000 years - and sometimes more! The book, as well as the on-line version in German, contains everything that Austrians collectively find interesting about their country - past, present - and sometimes future. It was put together as a reference work for Austrians (mainly) who want to find out more about various aspects of their country:

  • Things they learnt at school and have now forgotten,
  • Places they went - or are going to - on holiday,
  • When did the Austrian Empire really begin?
  • What exactly was Austria's role in (see) World War I?
  • What is the economic structure of the (see) Tyrol?
  • Anecdotes like: How did the first (see) Elephant come to Austria?
  • Etc. etc. etc.
Obviously, people reading this sort of information in German - mostly Austrians, or Germans and Swiss, or people who have learnt German as a foreign language are likely to approach theses questions from a different angle than people who do not read or speak German. People who don't know German are likely to know much less about Austria (and German-speaking countries and cultures generally), than people who do. Learning a language - and especially having grown up speaking it - means learning how the country where that language is spoken talks about things and what associations, thoughts, feelings, emotions are linked to certain words, places, people, historical events. In other words, Austrians - and to a somewhat lesser extent, other speakers of German - have a certain collective basis of background knowledge - so-called 'local knowledge' - which will make them interpret and react to certain words, sentences, phrases in the German version in a certain way. Of course, not all Austrian readers will react in the same way, but, generally speaking, the writers of the German version could rely on a certain amount of collective, local knowledge which would make their text make sense to their readers. What this means in a practical sense is that lots of associations, assumptions, contextual information, could be left implicit and didn't have to be spelt out. For instance, people living in Austria will know that Salzburg is a federal province as well as a city, and when talking about various well-known places, rivers, mountains etc. it will be clear to Austrians that we are talking about the province and not the city. People speaking other languages and living in other parts of the world are not usually likely to have this type of local knowledge or culture-specific knowledge. What this means in concrete terms is that those of us who wrote the English version had to make lots of things which would be obvious to Austrians explicit, to fill in the gaps so that the English text would make sense to people who know different, or fewer things - or nothing at all - about Austria and still want to find out about places to go on holiday, what Austria did in World War I etc.

The usual way information or knowledge is transferred from one culture-specific group of users to another (i.e. translating) is to 'find a word' for it in the foreign language. For example, the usual way to translate the Austrian word Gymnasium would be to call it high school or grammar school, according to whether we were writing US or British English. We didn't like this type of 'domesticating' translation strategy for a number of reasons:

The users of the English version wouldn't just come from the US or Britain and need not necessarily be familiar with the education system of either these countries. We assume that English is used and understood by people all over the world, with various national and cultural backgrounds.

We would be talking as if there were such things as high schools or grammar schools in Austria, whereas a Gymnasium is differently structured and has a different status, cultural significance and requirements in the Austrian system than either high school in the US or grammar school in Britain.

The intention of the Österreich Lexikon - and thus also of the Encyclopedia of Austria - is to present Austria from the Austrian perspective, how Austrians see their country, its institutions, its history. Rendering Gymnasium as high school or grammar school would anglicise an Austria-specific institution, neutralise it into a non-Austrian entity.

The strategy we chose to take these factors into account was one of 'foreignising ' the English version rather than 'domesticating' the Austrian one. One could say, we decided to make the global users 'travel' to Austria and let them see it through Austrian eyes rather than to make Austria 'international', to 'globalise' it and thus rob it of its particularly Austrian identity. This decision was based on the conviction that it is possible to talk about anything in any language - it's just a question of knowing how, of finding the 'right words'.

How exactly do we then 'speak Austrian in English'? Making the local knowledge of the Österreich Lexikon understandable to a global audience of worldwide users meant developing a number of strategies of knowledge transfer:

The most important strategy was what we call re-configuration. This simply means putting the ideas, information contained in a word, phrase, sentence, paragraph together in a different way - re-configurating it. This strategy can in turn best be explained by dividing it into 3 types:

The German word Bauern refers to ideas (or more precisely, concepts) which are usually expressed in English by the words peasant and farmer. Austrians reading about the history and social development of the peasant and/or farmer don't have to worry about which is being talked about because

(i) the word Bauern covers both peasant and farmer

(ii) the other words used to describe their (the peasant/farmer) social history (i.e. the context) make it clear how latter-day Bauern (peasants) became modern-day Bauern (farmers).

You see that the solution is to 'break up' the German word into its various meanings (in this case, two main ones and various related terms such as tenant, landlord etc.) and find English words which fit them. We could also say, the information is re-configurated, which itself really just means 're-scrambled' or 'put together' in another way. We call this type of re-configuration clustering, since a cluster of words is used to render ideas that are expressed in one word in German.

We have also kept the German word, so that you can see that 'in Austrian' they have a different way of talking about something that in English we need two (or more) words for. Like: did you know that in Austria they have a word, one word! - Selbstanzeige - for report to the authorities of false tax declaration!

The next strategy, streamlining works practically the other way round. In this case, if we normally use several words and/or phrases to express the meanings of one German word, we have used the most common English expression for the main meaning of the German and expressed the others only implicitly in the text. The German word Attentate, for example, means both assassinations and attempted assassinations. We thought it unlikely that anyone would think of searching for attempted assassinations, so we just called the entry Assassinations and integrated the idea of the failed or attempted assassinations into the general description.

The transfer strategy on the other hand aims at making the Austrian way of expressing things transparent by a more or less 'literal' translation. The Austrian word for Potato - Erdapfel - has also been translated as ground apple and earth apple. This emphasises the difference between the Austrian term and the word used for potato in Germany (Kartoffel) and at the same time illustrates the Austrian word's similarity to expressions in other languages such as the French pomme de terre.

Another way of helping you as global users to find your way around a collection of information which has been structured on the basis of Austrians' local knowledge has been to add a number of keywords. These keywords, for example People + 19th Century or People + Politics, Geography + Mountains, Geography + Forests, create a large number of search paths (in their various combinations) which are most likely to be followed by international users.

Sometimes, as in the tax declaration example, the way the words are put together may look a bit strange - 'that's not how you say it in English' - well it probably isn't, but it's how 'they' say it in Austria. And we've tried to show you that via the English language. We hope that this way of 'speaking Austrian in English' will give you real insight into things Austrian, a sense of the flavour not just of the country, but of the people - the culture, in the broadest sense of the term. The way they think, feel, what they talk about, what they think it's interesting to talk about - and how they do it.

We think this is more important - and more interesting for you - than pretending they speak and think in English, which is what most conventional translation strategies really boil down to. Austria doesn't speak and think English - it speaks 'Austrian' - and we hope you will enjoy getting to know more about Austria and things Austrian from the Austrian perspective as well as your own.

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