Some Cultural Translations

For ease of reading I usually use rough Anglo-American (more often, American) equivalents of elements of the educational system that not really translate well. So I say “high school” when I mean the German Gymnasium, which today usually comprises the 8 school years following  Elementary school (9 years when I went there), so in fact equals both middle school / junior high school and high school. Grades in German schools are actually 1 (best) through 6 (worst), with 4 being the lowest passing grade. That roughly translates to the ABCDF scheme used in the United States, except we also have a failing E (5). You can fail, and you can fail really horribly! The last high school years and some universities (including UAS) in fact use a “points” system instead of grades, where 15 to 13 points are 1/A, 12 to 10 are 2/B, and so on, until 5 points which equals a straight 4/D and thus means you barely passed. The three-point range per grade mirrors the +/- qualifiers common with the more widely spaced grade schemes. So when I say somebody got an A+, that really means the campus systems shows s/he got 15 points. A means 14 points and A-, 13 points.

Something that probably doesn’t translate at all is that in Germany and some neighbouring countries we have a distinction between true academic universities complete with doctoral degrees, research etc., and Fachhochschulen, now usually called Universities of Applied Sciences. They differ from actual universities in offering a more practical set of study programmes, often primarily technical, and originally also in having their professors teach more than twice the workload while not obliging them to do any research. All that has changed recently and the difference between the two kinds of universities is really very slight now, except that the Fachhochschulen still have a much closer connection to the actual business world, often taking their professors from the industry, and that they are still more accessible for students lacking the entrance certificate for true universities, but compensating with professional experience in the subject they intend to study.

UAS Hamburg, where I study, is a Fachhochschule, and when I use “UAS” without further qualification I am always referring to this university. When I say “UHH” I mean the University of Hamburg (“HH” being the official abbreviation for the city state of Hamburg, meaning Hansestadt Hamburg).

And then there is this wonderful German word Prüfungsvorleistung, PVL for short, that defies literal translation. The closest approximation would be “exam prerequisite”. At UAS everything is about getting the PVL. You need it to take the end-of-term examination in a lecture. You get it by attending the Practicum that accompanies the lecture and completing the homework assignments to the satisfaction of the professor and/or assistant. Mind you, once you have the PVL for a given lecture, you keep it. You can take the exam in the same term, or in a subsequent one, even with a different professor. BTW, if you fail in an exam, you have two more tries.

An Altklausur is an exam from an earlier term that has been made available to students for their exam preparation, either by the professor him/herself (then usually as problems complete with official solutions), or more often by a student. In the latter case it’s normally a scan of his/her actual exam, questions and answers, with the name blacked out of course. You see, once you acknowledge the grade, you can take your exam home and do with it what you want, including make it available to others, though strangely not all the professors seem to be aware of the existence of this feature. There used to be physical collection of such exams at the student representatives office, but nowadays there is a website dedicated to the purpose. In the case of actual exams, the qualities of the solutions (and hence the usefulness of the Altklausuren) naturally vary.

And no, I won’t defend my incongruous decision to literally translate Wahlpflichtmodul as “compulsory choice module” every time I mention it. The term is just so crazy I simply can’t help sharing my fascination with it!

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