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10 Most Commonly Misunderstood German Words

Using words with positive connotations in the applicable cultural environment is vital to the success of translated technical copy. Although many English words might have a perfectly valid direct translation in German, these direct translations may not awaken the same positive feelings in consumers as the original English did and vice versa. Below you will find ten examples of frequently misunderstood German words.

  1. die Kompetenz This word translates directly as “competence”. In Germany, writing on your website that you are “competent” is impressive and attractive. Consumers want someone with “competence”. In English, however, writing that you are “competent” indicates you are doing the absolute minimum required by your profession. Anyone who doesn’t have “competence” shouldn’t be working. English speakers prefer to hire people who are “skilled” or who have “expertise”.

  2. die Möglichkeit Literally translated, “Möglichkeit” means “possibility” in English. The word “possibility” can sound uninteresting and lifeless in English. People feel more energized and motivated by the word “opportunities”. Sometimes, “Möglichkeit” is also used in German to refer to situations where there is a wide selection. In an English context, however, you would not refer to these things as “possibilities” at all, but rather as “options”.

  3. kontrollieren The verb “kontrollieren” sounds very much like the English word “control” and can sometimes be directly translated as such. Where you run into trouble is when “kontrollieren” is used to mean “monitor” or “check”. The connotations and meanings of the English words “control”, “check”, and “monitor” can be very different, depending on the context. It is important to choose the right one.

  4. überzeugen This verb translates directly to “convince” or “persuade”. In German copywriting, it is common to say “überzeugen” when you are talking about impressing clients. If you translate this directly to English, however, “persuade” or “convince” can sound almost deceitful within the context. English speakers tend to use expressions such as “winning over” or “impressing” clients.

  5. der Vorteil “Vorteil” translates directly to “advantage” in English. This word is often used in German texts to discuss things that add value to the product or service. Although the noun “advantage” may be used in some cases in English, it is more common to see verbs used in expressions such as “benefit from”, “take advantage of”, or “enjoy” used to describe added value.

  6. zugelassen This translates directly to “admitted”, “allowed” or “permitted” in English. The word “allowed” is often too vague and should not be used for “zugelassen”. Use of the words “admitted” and “permitted” in English can be very different from how “zugelassen” is used in German. “zugelassen” or the related word “Zulassung” are often used to say something is licensed, approved for use, or authorized. In order to translate this word into English properly, it is necessary to check the vocabulary used by the corresponding regulatory agency in the English-speaking country you are writing for.

  7. die Sicherung “Sicherung” is a very broad German word that can have very specific meanings. These many colors of meaning have different translations in English. Depending on the context, it can refer to anything used to ensure the safety or security of something. It can refer to safety and security themselves. It can refer to anything used to back up data from a computer. It can even refer to the fuses used in electrical circuits. This is a word that absolutely must be understood within its context!

  8. die Anlage Within an industrial context, this word can seem somewhat vague and have a myriad of English translations. The most common mistake translators make is translating it as “plant”, when it is actually referring to a single piece of machinery. In English, a “plant” refers to the entire factory from the parking lot right down to the fixtures used in the building. A single piece of machinery within the factory, however, is better referred to as a “machine” or “system”. When the meaning of “Anlage” is vague within context, the best translation is “facility”. This word can be used to refer to an entire building complex and the equipment it contains or simply the machine itself.

  9. die Leistung This German noun has several English translations, including “service”, “machine output”, “power”, “achievement”, and “capacity”. It can be easily mistranslated if the reader fails to understand the context.

  10. anerkannt “Anerkannt” translates directly to “recognized” in English. This word is often used to say something is “approved”, “eligible”, or even “accredited”. Depending on the context, translating it as “recognized” may sound awkward or lose the original intended meaning of “eligible” or “accredited”. Much like “zugelassen”, it is helpful to understand what is being recognized by who. It should then be possible to look up the vocabulary used by the corresponding English-speaking organization and adapt the translation as necessary.

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