Fun and Challenge with Translations:
Bildarchiv der Deutschen Kolonialgesellschaft
2004 Coutts-Nijhoff Study Grant Project

By Helene Baumann

WESS Newsletter
Spring 2005
Vol. 28, no. 2

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My Coutts-Nijhoff project concerns the Bildarchiv der Deutschen Kolonialgesellschaft, a rich electronic resource featuring some 55,000 digitized pictures and a digital version of the 1920 Deutsches Kolonial-Lexikon, a three volume set. The website of the archive ( is freely accessible and searchable, the preservation and digitization work having been supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and various private foundations. The original glass plates and photographs, along with a library containing some 15,000 volumes, are a legacy of the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft, which was founded in 1888 to promote Germany’s colonies and encourage settlers to leave the overcrowded and economically depressed German Reich. The entire collection is held by the university library of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität in Frankfurt am Main. The pictures document the entire short-lived German colonial enterprise, lasting from the 1880s to World War I, spanning geographically from Togo, Cameroon, German Southwest Africa (today’s Namibia), German East Africa (Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi), to parts of China, Micronesia and Papua New Guinea. Main themes concern geology, mining, vegetation and agriculture, zoology and animal husbandry, activities of natives and settlers, transport of all kinds, economic development, military, rebellions and exploratory travel. When the archive was discovered after World War II, it was in terrible, deteriorating physical condition. During the war years it had been kept in an abandoned mine shaft.

For the past decade, the director of the Afrika-Asien Abteilung der Universitätsbibliothek Frankfurt, Dr. I.-D. Wolcke-Renk and her staff have been developing a sophisticated thesaurus, namely a hierarchical system of keywords to describe the individual pictures. My first task was to translate this thesaurus to provide English-language access to the picture archive. In the original proposal I had thought of using an online translation service and then revise the list. However, it turned out to be more efficient to just translate directly into the hierarchical database, which I received as an MS Excel file. In fact, I had to translate three different lists. The largest concerns subjects (Sachgruppen), another peoples (Völker), and a third geographical names (Regionen). The database into which my translations will eventually be loaded is located at the Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft in Dresden, under the direction of Prof. Uwe Jäschke. The lists are substantial: Sachgruppen, for instance, has 3,883 rows and columns from A through K. A typical hierarchy would look like this: Alltag – Haushalt – Hausrat – Möbel – Kleinmöbel – Korbmöbel; or: Bevölkerung – Personengruppe – Kaffeegesellschaft. Or more obviously: Tiere – Wirbeltiere – Säugetiere – Affen – Gorilla. By the way, they did not differentiate between monkeys (Affen), and apes (Menschenaffen). I want to emphasize the tremendous work done by Frau Dr. Wolcke in providing descriptions for the entire archive. Sometimes the original picture had a caption (often hand-written), but numerous photographs had to be analyzed and described from scratch.

I am aware that translating cannot count as "study” or “research", but as it was a substantial (and time-consuming) part of my Coutts-Nijhoff project, I thought WESS members might be interested in hearing about it, especially in case others embark on similar projects. Now that the translation is complete, I am starting on the research that will result in an article introducing the archive (and similar ones) to the English-speaking scholarly community. I plan to report on this second part of my project as a “work in progress” at a future WESS Research and Planning Committee meeting.

Thanks to the very generous Coutts-Nijhoff Study grant, I was able to travel to Frankfurt and devote two uninterrupted weeks learning about the archive and translating as much as possible of the thesaurus. I had brought my laptop with all the Thesaurus Excel files loaded and every day installed myself in one of the reading rooms, armed with a variety of encyclopedias and dictionaries (technical, geological, botanical, zoological etc.) Talks with Frau Dr. I.D. Wolcke-Renk, now retired but still working with the archive (and me) were very helpful. She seemed familiar with every single picture (an amazing feat given the size of the collection.) She clarified many a concept and also helped by finding background material on individual terms or names. A big drawback working at the Frankfurt University Library was lack of access to the Internet, a fact I bemoaned loud and often. One had to be a registered member of the university.

In addition, I traveled to Basel to meet with the librarians and view the Basel Mission picture archive ( and to Berlin to visit the Deutsche Staatsbibliothek. Both trips greatly enhanced my work in Frankfurt.

Now to some of the translation challenges: How would you translate that typical German word "Abendstimmung"? What exactly are "Kleinteile” in the context of household goods? What on earth is a "Wurfeisen", a "Gesellschaftsvogel” or a “Seidenaffe”? These are just some examples of words I could not readily translate, because they were not listed in the dictionaries I consulted. The Abendstimmung question became almost a parlor game, as I would ask German speaking friends what they thought would best express this in English. Dusk? Evening scene? Twilight? That special feeling you get at sunset? Is it a feeling or a meteorological phenomenon? Emotion or science? As you can imagine, there was no single best answer… In the end I had to decide what word an English-speaking researcher would most likely type into a search interface to find a specific picture. The Wurfeisen was intriguing. Since I could not initially see the picture in the archive (it is still “under contruction”,) I checked the Kolonial-Lexikon, online Brockhaus and Google. Brockhaus described it as a knife with at least three blades and mentioned an African people named Zande. Google Images showed medieval looking battle scenes with star-looking weapons being thrown; these were called ”throwing stars”. However, when a few days later I managed to see the corresponding picture in the Bildarchiv database, I found that these weapons were not star-shaped. So I decided simply on “Iron weapons” and added the African peoples' name (Adamaua) who had been mentioned on the original glass plate.

I also asked friends and colleagues for help. Dick Hacken took time to review the entire Sachgruppen list and gave me valuable and much appreciated feedback. A Chinese colleague, Zhaohui Xue, provided Pinyin transliteration (e.g. Kiautschou to Jiaozhou) for the Chinese place-names. When I worked on the geographical list, atlases and gazetteers were helpful, but first I had to find out where the locality (or lake, or mountain, or river) was, and then try to guess what it might be called in English. Many places listed were too small to appear in any reference work. Useful but time-consuming was the GEOname database, because it lists all historical names of a place. While translating online, I routinely had at least three or four windows open. Except for Namibia, it appears most German place names have been replaced with African, English or French ones. But there are vestiges of the German presence. Togo has a mountain called Misahöhe. Papua New Guinea still has the Bismarck sea and archipelago, but Neu-Mecklenburg is now New Ireland, Neu-Pommern became New Britain. China’s so-called Number One beer is Tsingtao, a port city briefly occupied by the Germans. Could it be that Germans brought beer-brewing skills to China (as they did to so many other places)?

On my very last day in Germany, a beautiful crisp fall day, a librarian talked me into visiting the nearby botanical garden during my lunch break. What should I discover in one of the greenhouses? A Leberwurstbaum! Kigelia Africana, featuring sausage-like fruit, had been puzzling me for a while, because no Leberwurstbaum was listed in the botanical dictionaries. I decided it had to have been a settler’s fanciful name for an unknown tree growing sausage-like fruit. The Botanical Garden helpfully provided the Latin name. If you’re curious, see: And it is indeed called “sausage tree”.

Editor: Sarah G. Wenzel

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