I decided to write this post after yet another long proofreading job, clearing up the utter mess created by some anonymous colleague before me. It was full of some of the most basic and recurrent errors that one tends to find in bad German to English translations.
It is hoped that this post will make a tiny contribution to improving standards in the industry, or even provide clients with a handy list of telling signs of a poor translator when they themselves are not in a position to judge. Even if it should fail in these two objectives, it should certainly prove to be cathartic writing for me and cathartic reading for all the other high-quality German to English translators out there. These errors are in no particular order, by the way, I think they all cause an equal number of grey hairs, but if desired I can keep a count next time…
Please let me know if you decide to do your own version for your language combination and I’ll edit this post to include a link at the bottom! Also keep your eyes peeled for a late December special: The Horrors of Proofreading: Top 10 into English translation errors. This planned post will go beyond mere German to English translation errors and include some of my ‘favourite’ errors found in all manner of into English translations, not just German to English.
Let’s get started…
1. Some translators need §ectioning
One of the most common errors, even found in otherwise decent translations. The § is a symbol meaning ‘Paragraf’ in German (which is not the same as ‘paragraph’ in English – that’s ‘Absatz’). We Brits* don’t use the § symbol ever. We tend to say ‘Section’ or ‘Article’ (with or without capitalisation, depending on preference and context). I’m told by Marta Stelmaszak that this also comes up in Polish.
* Thanks, Steffen Walter (see comments).
Hint: It’s not even on a standard QWERTY keyboard…
2. GmbH is not the same as Ltd. (or anything else!)
Unbelievably, this is one I had to explain to a seasoned in-house translator of ten years, who frequently translated banking and other legal documents with this glaring error. GmbH means “company with limited liability” under German, Austrian, Swiss or Liechtensteinian law. There are quite significant differences, even between the meaning of GmbH between these four countries where GmbH exists. When you translate “Firma GmbH” or “Gesellschaft AG” into English, you simply cannot ever translate these letters in any way. To translate them into anything else in the name of the company can be viewed as misrepresentation and therefore could have serious legal consequences!
Hint: GmbH has its own Wikipedia page in English. It doesn’t redirect to Ltd.
3. Know how to use know-how
The source text may use clichéed Anglicisms that nobody seems to truly understand yet everyone seems to throw into their CV and marketing materials. But that doesn’t mean you should or even can use them in your translation. Don’t be lazy. Write English you’d actually want to read.
Hint: How often do you see “know-how” on a British CV?
4. Just because the Source is capitalised…
…Doesn’t mean it should be the same in your translation. Remember: Germans capitalise all nouns. We don’t. Just proper nouns. If you don’t know what one of those is, I suggest finding another profession. Okay, I can hear some people shouting at the back “What if it’s a title?” There, you should exercise your common sense. Assuming you have some. Just remember that in British English we are not crazy about capitals in headlines and titles. Check the BBC, the Guardian, The Times, and you’ll see what I mean. Any good copywriter will tell you – If You Need To Capitalise Every Word You Are Writing To Grab Attention – then perhaps your copy just isn’t interesting enough. The same goes for translation. From my perspective, the rules appear to be a bit more relaxed in US English, although Kevin Lossner tells me no, not in good US English. As a general rule: don’t capitalise unless you have to or if it’d look weird if you didn’t.
Hint: Take a look at the Guardian style guide for advice on usage or an article featured in the same newspaper on the subject for more reasons why use of the upper case should be avoided where possible.
5. This one make me pull my hairs out…
Most words remain in the plural or singular in the English translation just as they were in the German. But some don’t, and some translators don’t seem to realise that. I hope this informations are of use to you.
Hint: Re-read the text, consider whether that’s really how you would say that in English.
6. No, you can’t just leave it in Deutsch…
Yes, German sometimes has some very long words and researching them can be a bind. However, if you don’t know or cannot be bothered to look up the precise term in English, no, it doesn’t suffice to just leave it in German, or make some vague attempt and put the German in brackets after. Yes, it’s in fact good practice to put the German after when it is a legal term with a specific meaning and no official English equivalent, but it’s not meant to be used to make up for bad research. Just leaving a poor attempt for the proofreader to correct isn’t good enough, either.
Hint: Use dictionaries. Use Google. Ask colleagues. Ask native-speakers to explain. All else fails – ask the client. But don’t leave the word or phrase in German. That’s just lazy.
7. Genitive. Seriously.
It’s shocking how often this happens. I recently corrected a text full of “the investor” when it should have said “of the investors”. Translators that can’t recognise the genitive really shouldn’t be translators at all. I learnt that in secondary school.
Hint: New career? English native-speakers may sometimes muddle up the accusative and dative when speaking, or sometimes even in writing. But not noticing the genitive in a text you are meant to be translating is quite another story.
8. Don’t hyphenate technical-terms just like in German
A lot of the time, it’s not even proper German. It’s certainly not proper English to start hyphenating words all over the place without any regard to proper hyphenation rules. No, you’re not a book-worm or medical-translator, nor did you take a course in Project-Management or buy a train-ticket yesterday-morning. When I see such things, I don’t think “native-speaker” (or rather, I do – of German – and with the hyphen mockingly added). In British English, at least, you have an ever-loving family and a two-year-old son. You may also, for sake of clarity, be a white-van man (as opposed to a white van man, i.e. your van is white, not necessarily you). From what I know, in US English the rules are similar, except with more of a principle of “common sense” – include the hyphen if it would be unclear without, but otherwise, don’t. There are also some words we Brits may still write with a hyphen where the Americans have come a bit further and dropped the hyphen completely. Look it up if you’re not sure.
Hint: Style guides offer great advice. Being a native speaker and not “going native” in any foreign country you are living in also helps.
9. Translation-oriented text
There are some words or forms that are more usual in German. That means we have to swivel things around a bit, rephrase, use a thesaurus, Google, or, heaven forbid think of a better way of saying it in English. One such common example is the over-use of the suffix “-orientated” (UK English) or “-oriented” (US English). I see it EVERYWHERE, and often in the American form. Why? Probably because it is what our friend Google Translate suggests*… Fine, use Google Translate or dictionaries or whatever sources you have to get an idea of a text, but then it’s creativity time. Some starters: -focused, -based, -linked, as well as your better option – rephrasing. Not every business-related text needs to read “We are a goal-oriented, quality-oriented, team-oriented company. We work hard using results-oriented strategies to fulfil sustainability-oriented goals”. Sorry, correction: NO text, ever, in the world, should read like that…
* more on Google Translate and US/UK English confusion in the top 10 into English errors post coming soon
Hint: Did you really use the suffix “-oriented” or “-orientated” so often, if at all, before you became a translator? A lot? Honestly?
10. Some things just leave a bad Imprint
You’ll find this one on a lot of German websites, as a botched translation of the word ‘Impressum’. The Impressum is the page on German websites, required by law, that contains legal notices, contact details, company information, tax IDs, responsible parties and so on. Kevin Lossner already covered this nicely. It is, as he says, a pet peeve of literate translators everywhere. The word doesn’t really exist in English, so you can approximate with a variety of options – ‘Legal information’, ‘Legal notice’, ‘Page details’, whatever, anything along those lines will do. Just NOT imprint!
Hint: Don’t follow the crowd. Just because everyone else is doing something stupid and wrong, doesn’t mean you should go along and do the same or accept it without a fight. That’s something applies across the board in life, not just to translation! Don’t be a robot – think for yourself!