Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California appeared on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, and he got some press attention for his stated willingness to serve as an energy and environment czar in a hypothetical Obama adminstration, even though he has endorsed his fellow Republican John McCain. In the recaps of his interview, I was struck by one sentence in particular: "I'd take his call now, and I'd take his call when he's president any time." This use of when instead of if struck me as unfortunate, and my first thought was that it might be the result of interference from Schwarzenegger's native German, where wenn can serve as the equivalent of English if or when. To check up on my hunch, I emailed the perspicacious polyglot Chris Waigl (who has bailed me out before on German-English translation conundrums), and she replied in her typically thoughtful and nuanced manner. Her response follows below as a guest post.
Ben wonders if Governor Schwarzenegger's curious choice of "I'd take his call when he is president" might be an L2 issue, and asked me how I'd translate "I'll take his call when he is president" and "I'd take his call if he is president" in German.
I think Ben's right, at least partially.
Both if and when are wenn in German. German learners of English have to wrap their mind around English working differently from German here, and usually undergo a great deal of drills on the so-called "if sentences" — "I will take his call when he is president / I would take his call if he was president / I would have taken his call if he had been president" — learning only later that these can be mixed and matched.
Another difference between the two is that in German, both the matrix and the conditional clause are likely to use the same verbal construction. So "when/if he is president" could mean "wenn er Präsident ist" (present tense) or "wenn er Präsident sein wird" (future tense), whereas *"if he will be president" is ungrammatical in English. Indeed, using will or would inside if clauses is a common mistake German native speakers make. Schwarzenegger doesn't, at least not here. But it has happened to me, when very tired and inattentive, despite being aware of the pitfall.
In English, "when he is president" implies that his being president is a (future) fact. In the German equivalent "wenn er Präsident ist" this is generally true, too, but since if and when fold into wenn, not much is needed to give the phrase enough of a conditional flavour to allow the possibility that it may never happen. This is certainly the case for "wenn er President wird" (gloss, *"when/if he will be president"). With just the single option wenn, there's a blurring between the temporal and the conditional sense in German that just doesn't exist in English. (It is possible to get around this blurring by opting for the more formal falls, which only means "if").
Another possible aspect of Schwarzenegger's choice, though, is that he may have got stuck with the temporal reference from the start of the sentence, "I'd take his call now." There's nothing grammatically wrong with this first part, and now being temporal, it has a parallel in "when he is president". So maybe this is not not simply a symptom of a struggle with if vs. when, but of a degree of linguistic insecurity and imprecision in English.
I'm glossing over the difficulties of translating "take his call". The telephone sense sounds quite clumsy, almost unidiomatic in German. I looked into the German online media, but there's very little, and no one quotes the entire passage. What is being quoted is the "any time" reinforcement. Some quote Schwarzenegger on one end of the continuum between "be open to the idea" and "accept Obama's offer", others on the other. In general, the German papers are more interested in whether Obama will get to speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate when he visits Germany later this month (apparently only heads of state are usually offered the opportunity, and the chancellor's office is said to have been unenthusiastic, with the opposition being unhappy…). Other topics of interest are that Schwarzenegger's wife seems to be supporting Obama, and comment threads usually drift off towards his movies. I do not think that the German-speaking public manages to take him very seriously as a politician, or for that matter has a good grasp of the role of a governor of a state.
The only longer treatment in German of the passage comes from a dpa wire quoted by an Austrian regional news site: "Der republikanische Gouverneur von Kalifornien sagte dem TV-Sender ABC, er könne sich vorstellen, eine Obama-Regierung als Energie- und Umweltexperte zu unterstützen, falls Obama die Wahlen gewinnen sollte." Translation: "The Republican Governor of California told the TV network ABC he could imagine supporting an Obama administration as an energy and environment expert should Obama win the election." That's rather far from what Schwarzenegger actually said.
Back to Ben's questions, weighing all the difficulties, and in context, I'd say the following go with each other:
"Ich werde sein Angebot erwägen, wenn er Präsident ist." (I'll take his call when he is president)
"Ich würde sein Angebot erwägen, wenn er Präsident wird." (I'd take his call if he is president)
(Choosing "consider his offer" as a way out of the "take the call" dilemma.)
However, as alluded to above, the second option has a last twist: Translating "wenn er Präsident wird" back to English, I'd come out closer to "if he becomes president": the verb become in German is werden, the same that's used as an auxiliary to construct the future tense.
Maybe this is what Schwarzenegger was aiming for. Or maybe he's betraying, involuntarily, a conviction about what the election's outcome will be.
[Guest post by Chris Waigl]