The English Corner: Are You Sicher? Bist Du Sure?

Lockbreaker with the locks

How people are not sure how to use the English form of Sicher

To start off my first post in the series on German versus the English language, I would like to start off with a little word of advice with regards to German-English translations:

When looking up the English equivalent of a German word, never EVER use the first meaning in English without looking at the meaning and context first.

 

Many people translating documents from German into English have done this, and native speakers of English who are correcting the English documents have tried not to cry while laughing at the translations, especially the English equivalent of the German word used that absolutely did not fit the context. Of some of the blunders I’ve seen over the years, I can list the top five that comes to my mind:

1. Wassereinbruch-   The translated version was water burglary! 😀 Yet the actual meaning is water break-in or leak if referring to an underwater pipe or cable.

2. Landstation-  On the same document about underwater pipes, this person translated it as country station!!  😀  Now if you were a country music fan, you would know what a country radio station sounds like, right?  For a station on land, we keep the English translation as is, just separating the words into two.

3. Nicht auf dem letzten Drucker machen– The English equivalent performed as a pun by one of my students at the university was “Don’t do it to the last printer!”  However, we do have one word to shorten this phrase, which is “to procrastinate.”

4. Ich kann schreien-  In a presentation when asked to speak up, the presenter responded with “I could cry?” Response from a predominantly American audience: “Well, don’t do that.” I could just scream when I hear this. Oh, did I forget that scream was the right equivalent?

5. Sicherstellen- Many students have made this mistake, which is to be discussed here. They always say to make it secure. But are you sure it means to make something safe?

There are many word pairings where one German word has several different English meanings. For the fifth example, we will look at the word Sicher and the English equivalents that features three different words: sure, secure and safe. With these, we also have for each English equivalent, a different meaning.

 

Sure:

If we use this word, then it refers to the process of making sure that every promise, fact, statement and proof is doubt-free. In other words, you are asking someone whether he is telling the truth or not, thus bringing a famous German statement you will find in many supermarkets selling tobacco and public places that have age restrictions: “Sagen ist gut, Beweis ist besser-” saying something is good, proof and/or evidence is better.

Example sentence:

Judy: Are you sure you can make it to the airport on time?

Jules: Yes my dear, I’ll make it with no problem.

Here, Judy is not sure whether her husband Jules will catch his flight out of the airport because of possible problems with traffic and/or his car.

 

Secure:

If we use this word, it has two different meanings. The first one means the same as reserving or claiming something to be yours for a specific purpose.

Example sentence:

Brad secured three places for us for the concert in May.

Here one can replace secure with reserve as they both mean the same- booking a place for an event                                                                                                                                                                                 so that no one else can take it.

 

The second meaning of secure is the process of protecting tangible assets from potential theft or damages. Here you can use the noun form security or even the adjective form securely or secured.

Example sentences:

  1.  Please make sure the seatbelt is  securely fastened.    This means that the seatbelt in the car must be snug but tight enough to make sure the driver or passenger does not fly                                                                                                                                             out of the car in the event of an accident.

 

  1. This is a secure place. There are over 100 cops in this building. (This in reference to a police station).     This means that the police station has many police officers protecting                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       the building and its belongings (persons included) from any potential                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     harm, which unless the threat comes from a Terminator, almost never                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     happens.

 

Safe:

If we use this word, it means protecting the most important assets in our lives from harm- in particular people.

Example sentences:

(Scene from Dante’s Peak). Harry and Rachel kept the kids safe while exploring the hot springs.  This scene speaks for itsself.

Also to note, safe is used as another equivalent to the aforementioned German quote regarding proof as “Better Safe than Sorry,” meaning taking extra-precautionary measures avoid potential disasters. This was used later in the movie, when Rachel (the mayor) orders a preemptive evacuation of Dante’s Peak on the eve of a volcanic eruption, which Harry predicted would happen, despite opposition from city leaders, an investor and even his own people.

 

Tip:

Now for people who really have problems telling the difference, here’s a tip for you to try at home. When you want to use the English equivalent of sicher, write down the equivalents and make a mind map for each word, making a word association with each of the three. Then write a sentence in your native tongue, have a look at the mindmap associated with the three words and choose the word that best fits the sentence and context. Nine times out of ten you will find the right word using this mind map.

 

There are many cases where one word has many equivalents in another language, as we see here with Sicher versus Safe, Secure and Sure. However one needs to find the equivalent that best makes sense in terms of definition and context. Sometimes even the tiniest doubt in the usage of words can help avoid mistakes based on assumptions. So when coming across a translation of a word you are trying to use both written and orally, look at them carefully- even using the dictionary if necessary, and ask yourself when choosing the right word “Are you sicher, bist du sure?” This expression my wife uses often, and albeit it is funny at first, it has a deeper meaning inside. Better safe than sorry, eh? 🙂

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Author’s Note:

The answer key to the questions about Schleswig-Holstein as well as the questions about the next (city-) state of Hamburg are available on the Flensburg Files’ website. This is in connection with the series on Germany at 25. To access them, please click on the symbol below and compare the answers to what you have. You can also comment on them doubt them to the author if needed. The answers to the Hamburg questions will come on 3 April, Good Friday. Have fun and good luck! 🙂

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