Spicing up an e-mail is as easy as 1-2-3

Spices at the bazaar

Listen to Brenda tell the story

The German language has a special kind of dialect called Beamtendeutsch, literally “bureaucrat German.” Wikipedia defines it best: “Bureaucratese…is language that sounds official…characterized by a preference for wordy, long sentences; complex words, code words, or buzzwords over simple, traditional ones; vagueness over directness; and passive over active voice.

If I didn’t know better, I would say this language is used just to confuse people.

It is lamentable that Beamtendeutsch is the language of official documents and thus the first version of German that foreigners come into contact with. Appropriately enough, you must make a pilgrimage—usually several of them, like that trip to the hardware store that always turns into three—to the Kreisverwaltungsreferat, an institution that was probably given such a long name just to scare foreigners off. This is the city authority in Munich where all foreigners must go to get their residence permits and other documents.

Over the years I’ve become accustomed to this regional dialect, where “regions” are defined as the inside of governmental institutions. I have learned to decipher its cumbersome expressions, excessive verbiage, and outdated vocabulary.

I recently received an e-mail telling me that my Deutschlandticket, my monthly train pass, is being renewed next month. Since my laptop browser is in English I automatically receive the English version. And what do I discover?

Beamtendeutsch is now seeping into English translations.

I’m going to give the city of Munich the benefit of the doubt and assume they have a native English speaker doing their translations (and I’m being generous here). So to whomever that is, I want you to close your eyes and recall the words of your eighth-grade English teacher when she graded your essays: Simplify, be clear, and eliminate unnecessary words.

We are not Goethe, Thomas Mann, or even Stefan Zweig. The mandate in English is not to be fancifully verbose and use what the Germans call “boxed sentences” (Schachtelsätze, where they line up sentence boxes and you have to figure out what order they go in and what’s inside, sort of like a Russian doll). In English, we are supposed to be as clear as possible.

I’m going to indulge in some time travel and slip into the shoes of Miss Napalo, my eighth-grade English teacher, and get out my virtual red pen. Let’s roll up our sleeves and see how we can improve the text of my Deutschlandticket e-mail.

It begins thus:

Dear Brenda Arnold,

You will receive a new ticket because of your Deutschlandticket.

I like the fact that they left Deutschlandticket in the original. The meaning of this should be clear even to someone who arrived in Germany just yesterday. At a bare minimum, we should all know the name of the country we’re in. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

But what’s with the word “because” here? They really mean “because you have a subscription.” I already know I have a subscription; I don’t need to be reminded. It’s not like they’re telling me to get a colonoscopy that only comes every five years, where you have to be reminded of the fact that you ever even got one in the first place.

The ticket is renewed every month, for Pete’s sake. So we can ditch the “because” clause.

And how about snazzing up the text just a wee bit? We can all agree this is a boring e-mail, but just like with mashed potatoes, if you add a bit of spice they can still be reasonably tasty, even though they’re just potatoes. A bit of butter, salt, and why not garlic and maybe even some horseradish? You’d be surprised what those flavorings will do.

After this makeover, our new improved sentence reads as follows:

Your new Deutschland ticket is on the way!

Yay! This makes you feel like some really fun thing will be delivered, like when you look out the window and see the DHL delivery truck and hope that maybe he’s bringing that book you ordered.

The next sentence starts out sounding as if they are informing me that I got a traffic ticket:

We would like to inform you that the Deutschlandticket for the following month has just been issued. You will find the new ticket in the Ticketshop section of your app.

Why so many words? “We would like to inform you…”

And these two sentences could be combined.

Here’s my suggestion:

Next month’s ticket has been issued and can be found in the Ticketshop on your app.

Now comes the part that annoys me the most. They turned a simple transaction of debiting €49 to my account into what sounds like a downpayment for a house in Beverly Hills:

The debit for the following month has just been initiated. We will automatically debit the payment method used when you purchased the Deutschlandticket (Mastercard) within the next five banking days.

The “debit has been initiated”? That’s like saying “Driving activity was initiated by the car.” Huh? The car drove. Period. Debit is a perfectly good verb, so why not let it do the job it was created for and just say “debit”?

To top it off, the word “debit” occurs again in the very next sentence. I can see Miss Napalo in my mind’s eye, getting out her red pen and gently crossing this out. So many words for so little action.

I propose the following:

Payment will be debited automatically to your Mastercard within the next five business days.

Finished! Now let’s take a look at the improved text in its entirety, plus some bonus marketing text. I can’t help it, I’m American. I had to do it:

Dear Brenda Arnold,
Your new Deutschland ticket is on the way!
Next month’s ticket has been issued and can be found in the Ticketshop on your app.
Payment will be debited automatically to your Mastercard within the next five business days.

Thank you for using the Deutsche Bahn. Each kilometer you ride on the train saves around 100 g of CO2 compared to driving a car and thus contributes to a cleaner environment.

Yours sincerely,
The Deutsche Bahn

I can’t do much about native speakers of Beamtendeutsch, but now I’ve done my part to free the English language of bureaucratic intrusions. 

Brenda Arnold

Cover photo: Christophe Schindler, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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