German YouTube Produces The Most Widely-Seen Denglish Fail in Human History

As many of you know, Germany's music royalties organization, GEMA, has been locked in conflict with YouTube for years now:

According to a German court in Hamburg, Google's subsidiary YouTube could be held liable for damages when it hosts copyrighted videos without the copyright holder's permission. As a result, music videos for major label artists on YouTube, as well as many videos containing background music, are censored in Germany since the end of March 2009 after the previous agreement had expired and negotiations for a new license agreement were stopped. On 30 June 2015, Google won a partial victory against GEMA in a state court in Munich, which ruled that they could not be held liable for such damages.

This is the English-language version of the message you get when you try to watch a blocked video:

Dengilsh

Along with hopeless confusion about until/by ("I'll have that report on your desk until 5, boss!"), mismarked relative clauses are quintessential Denglish errors. Oxford, refresh our memories:

A relative clause is one that’s connected to the main clause of the sentence by a word such as who, whom, which, that, or whose. For example:

It reminded him of the house that he used to live in.

The items, which are believed to be family heirlooms, included a grandfather clock worth around £3,000.

There are two types of relative clause: restrictive (or defining) relative clauses and non-restrictive (or non-defining) relative clauses. The difference between them is as follows:

  • A restrictive relative clause provides essential information about the noun to which it refers. It cannot be left out of the sentence without affecting the meaning. The highlighted section of the first sentence above is a restrictive relative clause. If it was left out, the sentence would not make sense:

It reminded him of the house. [which house?]

  • A non-restrictive relative clause provides information that can be left out without affecting the meaning or structure of the sentence. The highlighted section of the second sentence above is a non-restrictive relative clause. If it was left out, the sentence would still make perfect sense:

The items included a grandfather clock worth around £3,000.

You do not need to put a comma before restrictive relative clauses. On the other hand, non-restrictive relative clauses should be separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma or commas. For example:

A list of contents would have made it easier to steer through the book, which also lacks a map.

Bill, who had fallen asleep on the sofa, suddenly roused himself.

Now we see what's wrong with the GEMA message. The phrase "for which we could not agree on on conditions of use with GEMA" (which itself caused a fight between GEMA and YouTube, since GEMA thought it unfairly made them out to be the villain) is a restrictive relative clause, like "that he used to live in" in the Oxford example. Therefore, it should not be marked off with a comma.

But virtually all relative clauses in German are marked off with commas. So Germans frequently insert too many commas when they write or edit English. Any translator will tell you of epic, 79-email battles with German clients who think they know English and who insist on re-inserting commas. This usually culminates in an email from the translator which says "I'm really going to have to put my foot down about this. The comma must go, and it's not a style issue, it changes the meaning of the sentence. Trust me." but which really means: I AM A FUCKING PROFESSIONAL TRANSLATOR WHOM YOU HIRED TO TRANSLATE THIS FUCKING DOCUMENT BECAUSE I AM A NATIVE FUCKING SPEAKER OF ENGLISH. YOU ARE NOT. I AM RIGHT AND YOU ARE WRONG. IF YOU REINSERT ONE MORE FUCKING COMMA, I WILL FUCKING STRANGLE YOU.

The meaning of the GEMA warning is obviously incomplete without the clause about the GEMA conditions. Without that clause, the warning simply says you can't see the video "because it could contain music". The marking of the clause with commas tells an English speaker that the phrase "for which we could not agree on conditions of use with GEMA" is a non-restrictive clause, which would mean that it applies to all music in general: i.e., that GEMA and YouTube sat down to negotiate an agreement about all music ever created and failed to do so. With the comma removed, the sentence now correctly states that you're seeing the warning because GEMA and YouTube could not agree on terms for the music in this specific video.

It seems incredible, but YouTube obviously did not have this warning, which has probably been seen literally billions of times, checked by a native English speaker. I can just imagine some pompous, gel-haired German YouTube executive insisting it was correct, and zis konversation iss over!

6 thoughts on “German YouTube Produces The Most Widely-Seen Denglish Fail in Human History

  1. Lots of native English speakers don’t know or follow this rule either so I wouldn’t be too quick to assume it’s a Denglish thing (though I agree it very well could be). I mean, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen official pronouncements by native speakers with it’s/its mistakes.

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  2. “Lots”? Not sure about that. The its/it’s, your/you’re confusion is more typical of Americans (can’t say much about Brits). If they also write “should/could of” instead of “should/could have”, chances are that they are Duck Dynasty fans or maybe Texans.

    The Youtube notice may be the most widely-seen instance of Denglish, but it also is entirely inconsequential. Poor Andrew Hammel has been translating too much and now is experiencing firsthand the translator’s occupational hazard of turning into a stuffy language pedant 🙂

    The second half of the 18th century was the happiest time in the history of mankind, not only in “Germany” where multiple fiefdoms competed to attain status through support for the arts, but also in the colonies in North America, part of which would become the United States. Just read Ben Franklin to see the expression of a free spirit unconstrained by the strictures of political correctness … and weep for what we have lost.

    Spelling and punctuation, too, were more liberal then.

    Punctuation was not an important part of 18th-century writing instruction. The most popular grammars in the framers’ day were written by Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray. Though both are concerned with correcting writing mistakes, and both give a number of rules for comma use, what Lowth tells us is not very encouraging to those who look to punctuation as an exact science: “The doctrine of punctuation must needs be imperfect: few precise rules can be given, which will hold without exception in all cases; but much must be left to the judgment and taste of the writer” (Lowth 1762, 155).

    However, a few anarchists have managed to persevere.

    Even 20th-century constitutional amendments show irregular comma use. The 18th Amendment contains commas, normally used today to set off nonrestrictive clauses, to mark instead what must be read as a restrictive relative clause: “The right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age” (emphasis added). So does the even more recent 27th Amendment (one of the original 12 amendments, but not ratified until 1992): “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators
    and Representatives,
    shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened” (emphasis added).

    And

    While it is popularly held that the presence or absence of a comma can have a critical impact on the interpretation of a contract or a law, these examples demonstrate that, even today, punctuation in such carefully-drafted documents as constitutions and their amendments does not always reinforce meaning.

    Thus if the presence or absence of commas seems to turn the meaning of a clause on its head (even after relevant considerations such as context are taken into account), the sensible course of action is to interpret the clause in the only way which makes sense. That is why the comma abuse in the Youtube notice, while embarrassing, is inconsequential.

    Where it gets complicated is when commas placed in a non-standard manner permit more than one plausible interpretation. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution may be the prime example of a text whose interpretation hinges on the force (or absence of it) carried by its commas.

    (All the above quotes from http://www.english.illinois.edu/-people-/faculty/debaron/essays/guns.pdf, which makes for interesting reading even if you do not go along with the author’s views on the 2nd Amendment.)

    P.S.: A special place in hell is reserved for lawyers who perversely insist on drafting briefs that contain no commas whatsoever. Happily, German lawyers do not do this.

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  3. “I AM A FUCKING PROFESSIONAL TRANSLATOR WHOM YOU HIRED TO TRANSLATE THIS FUCKING DOCUMENT”

    Ah, the special hell of native speakers who translate from other languages into English – half the time your clients think they know your job better than you do and don’t believe you when the real facts of the language don’t coincide with what their High School English teacher told them 40 years ago…

    I feel your pain and share it.

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  4. Your points are well-taken, but as I have to constantly explain to students and some clients: A sentence with no mistakes in it, whose meaning is unambiguous from the outset, is always superior to a sentence which you have to read over a few times and re-parse in order to discover the (likely) correct meaning. Especially in legal texts.

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  5. Congratulations for dealing with such apparently boring and trivial topics as relative clauses and commas, which are a neglected minefield of written communication in English and no doubt other languages, with or without translation.
    As a translator from French into English for many years, I have often encountered such trivialities. I would say that French-speakers and English-speakers are equally guilty of comma misuse and non-use, but there are other issues.
    However, it’s risky to use such sloppy examples of English (not written by a native English speaker no doubt) to illustrate points about English. Whether there should or shouldn’t be a comma before ‘for’ doesn’t change the meaning of this more or less incomprehensible sentence in any way. In fact, the question of whether or not the relative clause is restrictive or defining is not an issue here, since the sentence is about ‘this video’. It is therefore clear what is being referred to.
    The example you provided is a good one of linguistic ambiguity in general. Another instance of this is the use of ‘could’ in “it could contain music…”. What is ‘could’ supposed to mean here (may or may not ?) Youtube should certainly know whether the music in its videos is disputed by GEMA or not.
    Otherwise, “could contain music”, could apply both to existing or future music.
    But whatever. Language and its use, isn’t this where all problems lie?
    Charles

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  6. I used to have an A4 page of Terms and Conditions filled to the brim with 8-point type that I was inordinately proud of, believing that I had covered every conceivable contingency. Especially lawyer clients, I thought, would be suitably impressed. None ever commented. I now think that if any of them ever read the T&C, they were silent out of pity rather than admiration.

    Today I use no T&C. Professional satisfaction comes when the check clears and doesn’t bounce. An “epic 79-e-mail battle with a client” is a massively money-losing proposition for the translator, but not for the (U.S.) lawyer who you can be sure is billing the client for every minute of it.

    I haven’t managed yet to condense my rules as much as Lt. Jean Rasczak in Starship Troopers

    “I have only one rule: everyone fights, no one quits. You don’t do your job, I’ll shoot you.”

    but I did manage to whittle them down considerably.

    Know the purpose for which the translation is being requested (forensic, promotional, …) and deliver the job on time. If you don’t know how to turn out work that accords with the purpose, you are not yet ready to go into business for yourself.

    Show that you stand behind your work by putting your name on it. Simple way of doing this is to supply a (non-editable) PDF file with your name on every page.

    If client requests an editable Word file, too, provide it at no extra charge, but make it clear that the end product must not have your name attached to it. They can then screw up the translation to their heart’s content.

    And that’s it. Oh, and gouge your client. If they are not squealing in pain, you are not charging them enough.

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