German Translation: Challenges and Opportunities

German translation can be critical for English-speaking companies looking to expand abroad into stable markets with spending power. Germany, Austria, and Switzerland are all vital trading partners for Canada and the United States.

With a population of over 83 million (as of January 2023), Germany is the largest economy in Europe and the fourth largest globally. Since it is the home of BMW, Mercedes, VW, and Audi, you may not be surprised to learn that its number-one export is motor vehicles. It is also home to many other major companies you know, including health care company Bayer, software giant SAP, and industrial powerhouse Siemens, in addition to popular consumer brands like PUMA and Adidas.

Not only does Germany do a lot of business with its fellow EU countries, but it also trades regularly with English-speaking nations. The Government of Canada summarizes Canada-Germany relations thus:

“Germany is Canada’s largest merchandise export market in the EU and its fifth-largest trading partner globally, with two-way merchandise trade totalling $30 billion in 2022. […] Germany is the sixth-largest foreign investor in Canada.”

Switzerland and Austria represent smaller but still meaningful German-speaking markets. Switzerland is famous for its robust financial sector as well as major pharmaceutical companies; Austria has many small but specialized markets, from textile fibres to firearms.

Challenges in German Translation

Challenges in German Translation

Although English and German share many words and grammatical features, German has four grammatical cases and three genders, both of which make English-to-German translation challenging.

Linguistic Challenges

  • German Grammar and the Case System

The German language is notorious for its complex sentences and grammar. One challenge for English speakers is the case system, which adds endings to nouns and adjectives depending on the context in which they are used. It also changes the article (die, das, der, etc.) that precedes a given noun.

For an English-to-German translation to be understood by German speakers, each word must use the correct case. When going from German to English, a good understanding of the case system is key to accurately convey meaning.

German also uses different capitalization rules. Correct capitalization can change the meaning and grammatical function of a word entirely. For example, Verfahren is a noun meaning “proceedings,” and verfahren is a verb meaning “to act,” among other meanings. This can be especially tricky for UI localization when translating strings of code, as a less-experienced translator might misinterpret the title case as a product name if capitalization is inconsistent in the source.

  • Long Compound Words and Word Growth

To express complex ideas, German speakers often rely on compound words in instances where English speakers would use several separate words or perhaps one single word. For example, a vacuum is a Staubsauger—a ‘dust sucker’—and a porcupine is a Stachelschwein, which combines the words for ‘spike’ and ‘pig.’ Such combinations can lead to very long words, as in the case of Geburtstagsgeschenk, which translates to ‘birthday gift.’

When translating from English into German, you can typically expect word growth of up to 35%. In other words, the German text will require 135 characters to convey the same content that English expresses in 100 characters. This means you need to plan accordingly when it comes to layout, whether you are working with print documents, buttons on a website, or user interfaces. 

  • Loanwords and False Friends

Modern German is peppered with English loanwords. In some cases, like “tourist” or “flip flops,” they mean the same thing as in English. But in other cases, the meaning does not always travel with the word.

For example, the word Handy is used daily by people of all ages throughout Germany. Can you guess what it means?

To a German speaker, das Handy is a noun that refers to a mobile phone.

Even though “handy” in English is an adjective meaning “skilled at fixing things,” the word is a different part of speech with a new meaning in German.

Additionally, since English is spoken widely and well in German-speaking countries, and since the languages share common roots, translators need to be aware of the potential for false friends between the two languages. 

In the 1960s, luxury automaker Rolls Royce was planning to launch a new model called the Silver Mist. Someone tipped them off to the fact that the word “mist” means manure in German, and they changed the name to the Silver Shadow.

Sunbeam Corporation did not get the same memo and, unfortunately, launched a curling iron called the Mist Stick in Germany.

German Translation Challenges

Even numbers can be false friends—a Million in German has the same meaning as in English, but a Billion translates to ‘trillion.’ 

  • Terminology

Many of the industries where German is used rely heavily on specific terminology. For example, the automotive sector uses highly technical language to communicate about its products. At the same time, auto manufacturers want to use branded terminology for their consumers and avoid using the terms competitors use. 

Translators have a delicate balancing act to ensure that complex terminology is translated correctly while not using trademarked terms from other companies.

Cultural Challenges in German Translation

  • Direct Communication Style

Consult any guide to doing business in Germany, and you are likely to read that Germans prefer a direct, efficient style of communication. Even Canadians and Americans, who share a similar low-context approach to communication, may find the German style to be more direct than they are used to. 

This means that business communications should get to the point. A good translator will know to avoid words used to soften messaging in English, such as ‘I think’ or slightly trimming the text to ensure that it is efficient in German.

  • Preference for Formal Language

German has a formal and informal means of address as opposed to English, which uses ‘you’ for everyone. It is important to know which formality level to use in German translation for a variety of texts. Corporate communications and technical documents usually call for the formal pronoun Sie; marketing copy may allow for the use of the informal du depending on the type of company and products.  

  • Not All Idioms Apply

When a translator uses idiomatic language in the target text, they need to select idioms that are socially and culturally appropriate for the target reader. When translating from English to German, this often means avoiding idioms that are rooted in sports—especially sports that may be unfamiliar to the average German speaker—and religion. 

  • Different German-speaking Markets

Lastly, it is important to know which German-speaking market you are targeting when you begin a German translation project.

In general, there is a form of German called Standard German, which is commonly understood in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. However, there are still vocabulary and spelling differences in written German across the three countries.

Spoken language varies even more, especially in Switzerland. Most people in German-speaking Switzerland understand Standard German and use it with some differences in certain settings, particularly in schools. When speaking to one another, they use Schweizerdeutsch, or Swiss German, which is different enough that many Germans do not understand it.

Knowing your target market is especially important when it comes to marketing copy and search engine optimization. For marketing purposes, German speakers respond best to copy that uses expressions from their local dialect. Likewise, when translating a website, it’s important to consider the specific terms that searchers use, which may be different in Berlin, Zurich, and Vienna.

Similarly, if you are planning to localize video content, you may want to consider hiring voiceover artists from a specific target country to ensure the voiceover sounds local to your audience.

Best Practices in German Translation

Best Practices in German Translation

Given the challenges inherent in German translation—and the potential for growth within the German market—there are several best practices you should consider during any translation project.

  • Work With Native German Speakers and Subject Matter Experts

The best way to achieve high-quality German translations is to work with translators and editors who are native German speakers and who reside in the target country. This ensures that they are attuned to the particulars of spelling and vocabulary within their market and the cultural nuances that can be so key in ad campaigns and corporate communications.

Similarly, any German translation team should also include subject matter experts. When translating highly technical documents for an automotive company, just speaking German is not enough. Your team needs to include linguists who are familiar with industry-specific terminology.

We also recommend keeping open lines of communication between your German translation team and designated points of contact within your company so that they can resolve questions as quickly as they arise. You are often the expert on brand- or industry-specific vocabulary and concepts, so your input is beneficial as linguists work.

  • Invest in Terminology Management

Your German translations will be more readable—and more accurate—when you invest time in terminology management throughout the process. This means doing terminology research and then developing a thorough glossary and style guide to make sure that translators and editors are on the same page. Not only do a style guide and a glossary for technical translations, in particular, ensure consistency, but they also speed up the translation process by reducing the number of queries that translators have.

  • Know Your Target Audience

In some cases, you may be able to serve German speakers across all three countries with one single translation into Standard German. In others, depending on the subject matter and the purpose of the document, you may need to localize your translations for each market.

It is also worth noting that Germany and Austria are part of the European Union, and Switzerland is not. While Switzerland makes significant efforts to harmonize its regulations with those of the EU, especially when it comes to product labelling and packaging, there may be differences. It is important to be familiar with the regulatory culture of the specific country with which you are dealing.

  • Ensure a Thorough Proofreading and QA Process

Both proofreading and rigorous QA process are key when it comes to high-quality German translations. An experienced proofreader will ensure that the rules of grammar, usage, and punctuation have been followed in the target language.

Once the project has been proofread, the next step is to avoid layout issues that may be caused by compound words and word growth in German. Once the target language document (or interface) has been created, a QA analyst will review the translation in context to ensure there are no further issues. 

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Contact Art One Translations to discuss how German translation can set your business up for success in new markets. Our expert translators can handle anything from technical manuals to highly visible corporate communications.

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