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German translation services

By Hilary Picken | February 26, 2019 | Languages

German translation

German is the 11th most-spoken language in the world. It is the first language for 80 million people in Germany and 8 million in Austria. Across the border in Switzerland, Swiss-German has almost 5m first language speakers. An additional 60 million people dotted around the world use German as a second or third language. Germanic hotspots are predominantly to be found in South America and Eastern Europe. After Russian, German is the second most-spoken language on the continent.

Despite its relatively low number of global practitioners (a little under 2% of the world’s population) German is a financial powerhouse. In US$ terms, it punches well above its weight.

Germany’s GDP* is the 4th largest in the world – US$ 4 trillion. While the combined GDP of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, at US$ 5.2 trillion, is almost twice the annual income of France.

[GDP* Gross Domestic Product is the sum of the market prices of all final goods and services produced in an economy during a given period. International Monetary Fund]

But let’s not sugar-coat it. German is a tricky language for English- speakers to master. Complex grammar, including six words for ‘the’, and compound nouns, where several words run together to make a single name, don’t make it easy.

A key part of tapping into the German-speaking economy will involve translation and you’ll need a reputable language service provider (LSP) to help you with that. Here’s why.


1. One language. Several versions

Despite their close physical proximity, the German spoken in Germany, Austria and Switzerland varies. German speakers in all three countries will understand somebody speaking standard German perfectly well, but localised differences exist in grammar, formalities and names. For example;

English: Potato, tomato, stairs
Standard German: Kartoffel, Tomate, Treppe
Austrian German: Erdapfel, Paradeiser, Stiege

The right Language Service Provider (LSP) will select a qualified linguist whose mother tongue is the correct variant for accurate grammar and vocabulary, but who also knows the subject matter inside out to ensure your text strikes the right chord.


2. German formality

As in other European languages, German has both a formal and a familiar form of “you.” The formal “Sie” is used to address strangers, business associates, and acquaintances. “Du” is more informal.

Which version you use depends on the context you’re using it in, and can be affected by the country, region, level of formality, authority of the speaker and the message platform.

The trend in recent years is towards less formality – generally, the younger the person, the more likely they are to use du instead of Sie. However, visitors to the culture are wise to not adopt this informal approach too quickly. It is better to risk being too formal rather than too familiar.

Your LSP will guide you towards the right level of formality for your text, engaging linguists who will ensure you convey the right meaning in the right way.


3. One size doesn’t fit all

Although a German sentence usually has fewer words than its English source, it often takes up more space. One cause is the German fondness for creating compound nouns. Combining several descriptive words to form a single, all encompassing one. e.g. business clients becomes Unternehmenskunden, while election process becomes Auswahlverfahren.

This is particularly relevant to page layout, for example on a web page or printed publication. When preparing text you will later translate into German, consult your LSP to ensure your layout will work in German. Items which may be problematic are:

– Titles and sub-headings
– Legends and axis titles in graphics
– Text within images
– Overall text length

For example, the English section header “Law for Regulating the Labelling of Beef” may fit comfortably across two or three lines in your English document’s layout. But how are you going to get on with its German equivalent “Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz”?

Tightly packed text, whether on a single page or in graphics, is unlikely to be easily translated into German. Leaving some space when you’re creating your document will save headaches later on. Your LSP will familiarise themselves with your page layout requirements to ensure nothing is lost in translation.


4. An English influence

German adopts a lot of English words, making them German by capitalising them and adding hyphens where appropriate. To “Germanify” a word, capital letters are used for all nouns, not just proper names as we do in English.

Then there’s Denglisch. The influx of English or pseudo-English vocabulary into day-to-day German language, with a changed meaning.

Though frowned upon by the authorities and the intelligentsia, its influence is increasing in popular culture – e.g. “Handy” is used for “mobile phone” while “Sprayer” replaces “graffiti artist”.


5. Complex grammar

German has six different words for “the”: der, die, das, dem, den and des, depending on the gender of the noun, whether it’s singular or plural and the overall context. The definite article for dog, for example, depends on whether it’s the subject of the sentence (the dog is happy – der Hund is froh) or the object (I saw the dog – ich habe den Hund gesehen) and if there’s only one dog or several (I saw the dogs – ich habe die Hunde gesehen).

In English, you can replace one noun for another without having to change the rest of the sentence, but you can’t do that in German, You will at least have to change the definite article and any associated adjectives:

I saw the brown dog in the park > Ich haben den braunen Hund im Park gesehen
I saw the brown cat in the park > Ich habe die braune Katze im Park gesehen
The professional linguists engaged by your LSP will be well versed in the nuances of not only the target language (their mother tongue) but also the source language, to ensure the translation is 100% accurate.

No translation should ever read like a translation, but German in particular presents challenges for the uninitiated. By engaging a professional language service provider, you can avoid some of the traps listed here.