Peak Translations

Tips to translate from English to German and vice versa

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The German language is the most common mother tongue in Europe and ranks 11th in the world for the most widely spoken. It is also sister language to English with many similarities between the two languages. However, it is often viewed as a particularly complex language for many reasons, including the inordinate amount of extremely long words e.g. Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (which happens to be the longest German word made up of 63 letters translating as a title of a law regulating the testing of beef), as well as its grammar confusion whereby it sends verbs to the ends of sentences and capitalises its nouns. Below you will find five tips that highlight what to watch out for when translating from English to German and vice versa:-

  1. Like many European languages, the German language uses both the formal and informal address of ‘You’, the informal ‘du’ and the formal ‘Sie’. This can be a challenge when translating from German to English, because in order to convey this formality or informality in English, the text would need to be adapted by using English words of formal and informal registers, so that the same level of formality is preserved.
  1. As mentioned above, the verb can cause confusion in German. A verb in English can usually find its place almost anywhere in a sentence, whereas the strict rules of German do not allow this freedom of movement. Some verb conjunctions push verbs to the end of a sentence and others keep the verb firmly in second place e.g. ‘Ich möchte einen Garten pflanzen’ (I would like to plant a garden). As you can see from the example, in German ‘möchte’ (would like) is second and ‘pflanzen’ (plant) is last. It is essential that the verbs are placed correctly in the sentence in order to ensure a translation is not literal but reflects the fluency of the native language.
  1. When you think of how many genders there are in a language, you’d be mostly right in saying that there are two, male and female. However, the German language stands out from the crowd by offering a third to the mix! If it isn’t confusing enough for English speakers to get their heads around the feminine and masculine nouns in many of the romantic European languages like French, Spanish and Italian, they also need to contend with the third neutral gender in German! In translation it is essential to make sure that these differences are apparent and conveyed appropriately in the target language.
  1. Similar to French and Spanish, there are several versions of the German language spoken across the globe, revealing themselves in various guises in countries such as Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Leichtenstein and some parts of Northern Italy. The German language like the Spanish has an additional ‘consonant’ to its bow, ‘ß’, which translates as ‘ss’. However, in Swiss German ‘ss’ is used instead of ‘ß’. There are also some words in Swiss German ‘rahm’ that are not used in German ‘sahne’ (cream). Austrian German tends to be more similar to German, unless the subject matter is legal or food, where variations are more apparent e.g. The Austrians use ‘AT Kren’ instead of ‘Meerrettich’ for horseradish. In order to convey the target country’s cultural references and nuances, it is therefore really important to localise translations so that the specific target market is reached.
  1. There are several words in German with no direct English equivalent e.g. ‘Dreikäsehoch’ (literal translation ‘three cheese high’), in other words a small child who is the height of three stacked wheels of cheese. Likewise, when you see GmbH at the end of a German company name, it should not be changed to Ltd, because it does not mean the same and has no translation, other than it means something along the lines of a company with limited liability. It is therefore best to keep the words as they are in order to avoid misrepresentation of the company and potentially avoid any serious legal consequences!

The bottom line; if you want your translation to not look like an eclectic mishmash of made up words, to sound fluent with the right style and level of formality, it will require an expert native translator to find the best solutions possible (like adapting the different forms of ‘you’ in tip one) that will fit within the context of the text and ensure your translation achieves its objectives in the target market.

By Madeline Prusmann, Project Manager, May 2018

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