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Challenges associated with the translation of the German language

Challenges associated with the translation of German language [Photo: iStock/tioloco]
in Language Connect

The reasons for translating documents, websites and content to and from German are plentiful. As the undisputed largest economy in the eurozone, the nation has become an important global financial centre in recent years, while the language is also one of the most widely spoken in the world, both on and offline.

Worldwide, Germany has more than 100 million native speakers, and in Europe alone, it is the native tongue of people living in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg. Online, translation of content and localisation for German markets is also important. Internet World Stats reports that 88 per cent of German speakers are online, and with 83 million online speaking German, it is among the top ten languages on the internet.

However, while it stands to reason that translating into and from German is an important task, there are challenges that come with this. It means any organisation translating German content and vice versa needs an expert translator, allowing documents and content to retain their authority and expertise with readers.

Here, we take a look at a few of the challenges associated with translation and the German language.

Gendered nouns

Perhaps the most challenging aspect for English speakers when translating documents and content into German is the fact that unlike in English, German nouns must all have a specific gender. This means that the singular “the” English speakers are used to has to become “der”, “die” or “das” depending on whether the subject of the sentence is a male, female or neutral-gender noun.

This presents problems for English speakers, because most are used to talking about such words as “things” as opposed to each having its own gender.

It’s something that’s not easy for non-fluent speakers to get their heads around, and shows why any translation work needs to be done by someone who has a very strong grasp of German, and who can decipher gendered nouns easily to make sure things read well to German speakers, to retain their authority.

Sentence structure

When it comes to translating content into German, it needs to be the case that everything reads as naturally as possible. If it doesn’t read like the author had an understanding of the language, then the document doesn’t hold the same gravity with readers..

This is problematic for English speakers translating into and from German, as is the case with a number of different languages. While a non-native or fluent speaker can translate documents into our out of German and they will technically be correct, giving them that natural air can be difficult without a grasp of sentence structure.

Unlike in English, German sentence structure is a lot stricter, and sticks more rigorously to the rules of the language. While on a simple level, things are more or less the same in terms of word order and structure, when sentences become more complicated and include topics and subjects separately, the latter can “float” in the sentence. For a non-native speaker, choosing where to put the subject can therefore be difficult.

And, of course, getting it wrong can result in documents coming across as unnatural and obviously not written by someone with a grasp of German, so it’s vital to ensure that any translation work is always being done by an expert.

Spoken German

Again, English and German differ greatly when it comes to spoken language, as well as written pieces. This means that any translator needs to know what the reason is for the translation.

Spoken English is not generally regarded as an inflected language in the same way German is. Depending on whether a word comes with a determiner, a gender or a neutral prefix, the inflexion on the subject of the sentence differs, which can change the meaning of a sentence.

Again, this is something that has to be considered when it comes to choosing a translator. If something is being translated as a spoken language piece, then to make sure it keeps its meaning across the two languages, the translator must be well versed in the target language and have a strong understanding of how the language works on a deep level.

When we appreciate the challenges associated with getting this right, it shows the need to ensure that any translation is done by someone who is not only an expert in the process, but also the language itself.

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