There’s more to translation than fighting trench wars with agencies and post-editing texts created by machines. Sometimes it involves some intriguing detective work, either in the stacks of your local library or, as is more likely the case these days, in the vast world of the Internet. Paul’s account of one of his recent translations will take you behind the scenes and show you a few facts of the trade you may not be familiar with.


Revealing a Renaissance Man

I’ve just finished translating an article on Albrecht Dürer that reads a bit like a detective story. Researchers have recently subjected the German artist’s paintings to x-rays and infrared light to penetrate 500-year-old canvases. This has brought to light hidden sketches and drawings that reveal the preliminary works of a genius who toiled at the easel, pushing himself to the brink of his ability and meticulously planning each stage of his paintings.

The recent groundbreaking work in the lab has also sparked renewed debate about the life of this great Renaissance painter. Who was this man? How much do we actually know about him?

It turns out that there were quite a few skeletons in Dürer’s closet, and as I translated the text, I felt increasingly like a modern-day Sherlock Holmes.

There was, for instance, a passage about a journey to Italy that the artist undertook in 1494 – purportedly to learn more about Italian Renaissance painting, but in reality to escape an outbreak of the plague in his hometown of Nuremberg. He also probably wanted to get away from his newlywed bride, whom he later described ornithologically to a friend as an “old crow.”

The text I was translating made cryptic references to some of his works that date from this journey and presumably document his actual itinerary, which is only vaguely mentioned in his diaries. You could say that his artwork here was akin to holiday snapshots taken during a trip through the Alps. The images provide clues for art historians and other detectives.

Today, roughly a dozen sketches and watercolors crafted during these travels still survive. Oddly enough, though, I had trouble locating the correct English titles of a couple of watercolors.

The trickiest title to translate was perhaps “fenedier klausen.” Don’t worry if you happen to speak German, but don’t understand what that means. Remember, this stems from the days before Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German essentially established a standard dialect called High German. My text indicated that the modern version of this title would be “Klause der Venezianer,” in other words, the “Klause” of the Venetians. But what’s a “Klause” anyway? I was unfamiliar with the word.

According to the Duden, today’s “bible” of German dictionaries, a “Klause” could either be a hermit’s hut, a monastery cell or a gorge in the Alps.

I couldn’t find an image of the work in question, but I did stumble across a scanned-in copy of an out-of-print German book from 1899, which informed me that the watercolor is part of the Louvre’s permanent collection. This old tome also described the watercolor as a picture of a landscape, near a mountain pass.

Finally, a clue! So, should “Klause” be translated here as a gorge? A ravine? A valley?

Trawling the Louvre website, I then discovered that the title of this watercolor had been incorrectly transcribed in my text. According to this source, Dürer wrote “fenedier klawsen” (with a “W” – not a “U”) across the top of a painting depicting the castle and town of Arco. His non-standard spelling had apparently been corrected to “Klause” by the German author of my text – and by the author of the old text on Dürer’s works from 1899.

The plot thickens.

One website dealing with the watercolor also had this description of the area where it was believed to have been painted: “Arco lies six miles west of the main route over the Alps, which runs north from Verona and over the Brenner Pass to Innsbruck.” This perfectly matched the text’s description of Dürer’s route.

Now I was getting somewhere.

Based on this information, I went with “Venetian Outpost,” a title that popped up again and again now that I knew the correct original spelling of the inscription.

It’s also interesting to note that the image of the watercolor that I found on the Web showed a town and a castle – not a gorge or a valley.

Never mind that the subject of the painting probably had nothing to do with Venice. The title was a ruse anyway. According to my text, it’s now thought that Dürer merely wanted to create the impression of a widely traveled man. In reality, though, he barely set foot in Italy as a young man.

There were other examples of arcane German in the text that kept me on my toes, for example: “Dz hab ich aws eim spigell nach mir selbs kunterfet,” which was an inscription by Dürer on his first self-portrait, made at the age of 13. I figured out that “kunterfet” is a variation of the modern German word “Konterfei” = “Bild(nis),” or painting, and was used here by Dürer as a verb, instead of the modern use of the word as a noun (notice Dürer’s spelling of the German preposition “aus” as “aws” – ergo, “klawsen” = “klausen.”)

My translation of this dusty German sentence: “I used a mirror to paint this image of myself.”

Of course all of this pales in comparison to the real juicy bits of the story, such as another inscription on a sketch that, until recently, was thought to stem from some rascal intent on playing a practical joke. The image is a hastily made sketch of Dürer’s best friend, Willibald Pirckheimer, and the phrase written in Greek on the edge of the work reads: “With the cock in your asshole.”

For years, art historians tended to overlook Dürer’s affinity for sensuous images of naked men and boys in his work – and his admiring descriptions of “handsome” soldiers. Now many are wondering if he didn’t have a penchant for sex with men.

A recent chemical analysis has shown that the sketch of his friend Pirckheimer and the inscription were made by the same pen.

It belonged to Albrecht Dürer.

You can read the fully translated text here: The God of Colors: Researchers Shed New Light on Artist Albrecht Dürer


Paul Cohen was born and raised in the US, and has been living in Europe for about half his life. He more or less stumbled into translation some two decades ago.

 Paul worked for nearly ten years as a translator and TV producer at German broadcaster Deutsche Welle before he and his German wife moved from Berlin to Greenland in 2001. During his first few years in the Arctic, he did a good deal of work for a Berlin agency that specializes in advertising and marketing texts. That’s when he expanded beyond journalism and learned how to turn German promotional lingo into English.

Paul started translating for the English-language website of SPIEGEL in 2007. In addition to enjoying the work, the articles he translates help keep him abreast of world affairs and events in Germany. 

Paul translates from German, Danish and French into English, and his main areas of specialization are journalism and marketing.

One Reply to “Finding Dürer”

  • Wonderful article. I always feel with Durer, being the adept that he was, that even though he died 500 years ago, he is still one step ahead of today.

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