German is the primary language of over 100 million people. There are plenty of good reasons for translating English into German and vice-versa. As a major global financial center, and with the largest economy in Europe, Germany’s need for translation of websites, video content, legal documents, and more is enormous.

At least 83 million internet users speak German, making it one of the most commonly used languages online. While translating to and from German is critical for the success of e-commerce and global communication, some inherent challenges come with the task. Translation services often face the problem of cultural gaps. It is part of the translator’s role to work with the client to help deliver their content in a way that is understandable in the target language, because translation alone sometimes isn’t enough. In this article, we will look at how cultural concepts can influence translation, using English and German as an example to show how shared emotions and cultural experiences have led to translation difficulties and, ultimately, shared words.

Linguistic Challenges In Translating To and From German

When translating any language, it is vital that the completed content reads naturally, as though it were written in the target language originally. For the content to have weight with readers, the translation should be seamless and easy to read. For English speakers who are translating into German, it is particularly important that the writer has a good understanding of sentence structure.

While a simple translation can technically be correct, without proper sentence structure, it will sound unprofessional. Sentence structure in the German language is quite strict, with a rigid set of rules. Simple phrases may translate easily, but when you’re dealing with more complex sentences, it can be difficult to know where to put the subject. When this has been done improperly, it is obvious and will look like a non-native speaker has done it. The result is a loss of authority in the resulting content.

Another common issue that English translation professionals run into is that German nouns each have their own specific gender. In English, we use a singular “the” (“the car,” “the ball,” “the building,” and so forth). However, in German a noun is preceded by either “die,” “der,” or “das,” depending on whether the noun is female, male, or gender-neutral. This can be tricky for English speakers who are accustomed to discussing nouns as things with no gender.

German nouns are also usually capitalized, whereas English nouns are not, unless they are proper nouns. As such, a translation agency is recommended in order to achieve the best quality results.

Cultural Challenges: Words That Have No Direct Translation

Linguistic differences aside, another conundrum that translation professionals come up against is that there are certain words that simply do not have an English equivalent. This is true of every language, and German is no exception. Many of these words have developed over the years due to cultural singularities.

In German, the word Schadenfreude is perhaps the best-known example of this inability to achieve a direct translation. It refers to experiencing pleasure over someone else’s pain. It was used in scholarly circles for years prior to its introduction on The Simpsons in the early 1990s. After the show aired, there was an increase in its use in written English.

Weltschmerz is another word borrowed into English in the 1860s that conveys a feeling we have no equivalent translation for. It is often translated as world-weary, but that kind of misses the mark for a word that expresses sentimental sadness, pessimism, and the general weariness of feeling the world is going to let you down with no solution to be found.

Another fantastic example is Kummerspeck. With a literal translation of “grief bacon,” the word refers to the few pounds that a person often puts on as a result of comfort eating during a time of particular emotional strain.

Loan Words Adapted Without Translation

German expressions that have been incorporated into the English Language without translation are known as loanwords, and we have a fair amount of these. Instead of translating a German word into its equivalent in English, there are times when we have simply adopted the word and made it a part of our own language. In addition to Schadenfreude, some common loanwords include:

  • Bratwurst
  • Delicatessen
  • Sauerkraut
  • Rucksack
  • Rottweiler
  • Hamster
  • Kindergarten
  • Uber

The Cultural Importance Of Localization

Localization is essential to helping bridge the cultural disconnect between two languages. Even when language is translated to perfection, an understanding of the local customs, culture and regional colloquialisms can be integral to the understanding of the target audience. As such, localization experts work to deliver concepts that are familiar in one culture to a fresh audience, often tweaking the phrases used to fit the cultural experiences and understanding of the new audience, going above and beyond translation alone.

It is easy to see that when content is being translated to or from German, it can become a complex project to ensure it retains its original meaning. A translator working in German and English should not only be highly fluent in both languages but should understand them from a deep linguistic level as well. The same is true for language pairings across the globe. While linguistic skills are essential for good translation, sometimes language alone simply isn’t enough.

You‘ve been reading a guest post by Louise Taylor

Louise Taylor is the head of English language content for translation agency Tomedes. She is a professional freelance writer and has been fascinated by languages since childhood, holding qualifications in Spanish, French, German and Latin.