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This German Translation Looks Funny

Your first German translation has arrived! Aware you may not be able to understand a word, but intrigued to see how it turned out, you open the file with anticipation. When you see it though, your heart sinks. The words are capitalized seemingly haphazardly, with several scattered throughout any given sentence. Titles are not written in headline style as the English text was. There are sentences where the first word is not capitalized at all. Other sentences seem to continue on into infinity. Numbers have commas, periods, and apostrophes - apostrophes! - placed in strange places. There are dots over some vowels and not others. You just want to cry. It’s a disaster……….or is it? This week, I examine some of the visual idiosyncrasies of the German language.

Too Much Capitalization

Have you ever wished there were an easy way to differentiate the nouns from the verbs in a sentence? Never fear, German has got you covered! The language’s capitalization rules require that the first letter of every single noun be capitalized, NO MATTER WHAT. Seeing every sentence punctuated by a host of capitalized words may come as a shock to many English speakers browsing their first German translation. Rest assured that all is well. A lack of capitalized words in your German sentences would be far more alarming, since it would mean your translator has defied the laws of grammar to create sentences without nouns.

Disorderly Titles

Do the titles in your text look like a mixed bag of capitalized and lower-case words? That is not by mistake, but by design. English has what is called “Headline Capitalization”, which requires the capitalization of the first and last letters of a title as well as the important words in a title. German has no such stipulations. The same rules of capitalization applied to sentences are also implemented in titles. This means the first letter of the first word will be capitalized as well as the first letter of each noun. That’s it.

Lower-Case Proper Nouns

Is there a lower-case proper noun glaring at you from the beginning of a sentence? This may or may not be a mistake, depending on the noun in question. In this situation, it pays to know your stuff. Seemingly in an effort to distinguish themselves from the other capitalized nouns in German sentences, some German companies write their company name exclusively in lower case letters. Such capitalization practices apply to the company name no matter what, even if it is written at the beginning of a sentence or title. It therefore makes sense to do an Internet search and check with the translator before crying foul on this one.

Run-on Sentences Galore

Uncovering some sentences of dizzying length in your document? Not a problem! Concerned about the prospect of creating a run-on sentence, English speakers actively regulate the scope of their sentences to avoid undue length. In German, however, excess sentence length is not a concern, but rather a sign of sophistication and intelligence. German speakers in academia will sometimes seemingly pride themselves on the length and complication of their sentences. It won’t hurt to set your German sentences free as well and allow them to swallow up the page.

Run-on Words

Are letters seemingly suffocating the lines in your document, leaving space for few to no spaces in between? You may be dealing with some very long, but correct, German words. When a new concept comes along in English, a fully unique word is often created or borrowed. In German, however, speakers tend to be much more descriptive of new things. Rather than adopting a completely new word, they might place multiple descriptive nouns side-by-side to compose a new term. Further contributing to this phenomenon is the fact that a noun is not allowed to exist next to another noun with a space in between in German. In English, for example, you might use multiple nouns next to each other to describe an object like a “grocery store shopping cart”. Having all these nouns next to each other with spaces in between would be absolutely unacceptable in German, however, so you would instead have to write “grocerystoreshoppingcart” or “grocery-store-shopping-cart”. And voila! You’ve created a very new, very long word.

Little Dots Everywhere

No, it’s not a blemish on the page or an apostrophe gone wrong, there really are two dots above those letters. What you are seeing is vowels adorned with the so-called German “umlaut”. I would argue that these do much more than simply change the pronunciation of a word. The vowels ü, ö, ä are actually extra letters in the German language that do not exist in English. Keeping the dots together with their corresponding vowels is therefore critical to the meaning of the text. German word “schwül”, for example, means “hot and humid”. If you change it to “schwul”, however, it means “gay”. Similarly, “schon” means “already”, while “schön” means “beautiful”. Pay close attention to your umlauts as you shepherd words around the page and your German readers will appreciate it.

Commas and Periods

Noticing some outlandish numbers in your document? Make sure the commas and periods aren’t clouding your judgement. German use of commas and periods in numbers is usually opposite of the English usage. A German text with the number $60,00 in it is not listing something at sixty thousand dollars, but rather sixty. In English it would be written $60.00. It differs further in Swiss German, which often uses the apostrophe to write numbers of one thousand or more combined with the period or comma as the decimal separator ($1’300.50 to write one thousand three hundred dollars and fifty cents for example). This is by no means an exhaustive analysis, however, since some German writers seem to adapt their numbers to the English standard in certain cases as well. Just be aware of these differences and use your best judgement with the translation. You might want to ask your translator about it beforehand if the appearance of numbers is a major concern. Establishing a standard for dealing with numbers before the translation is done will help everyone get on the same page.

Lost Quotation Marks

Scratching your head at the lack of quotation marks in your text? They may be in disguise. German quotation marks take on a very different shape from English ones. Instead of using “”, German texts employ »«. As a result, a translation of “Hi, how are you?” would look like »Hallo, wie geht es Ihnen?«. They’ve been hiding in plain sight this whole time!

Your Date - Reversed

Did the numbers for the month and day get switched around in your translation? This may not have been an accident. German usually writes the day first, followed by the month and year. This applies both to pure numerical forms of writing dates and the written-out versions. An American text, for example, would list March 27, 2016 while a German text would write the same thing as 27 March 2016. Sometimes this can be harder to detect when they are written out numerically, but the same principle applies. A date written as 3/27/2016 in American English would transform into 27/3/2016 in German.

Expanding Texts

Surprised that your text is a few pages longer or captions of pictures are a bit lengthier than expected? This is completely normal for translations in most language combinations. My favorite example is the German translation of a famous phrase from the movie “ET”. In English, ET says “ET call home”. In German, however, he says “ET nach Hause telefonieren”. Text expansion can be affected by numerous factors, but the amount added on to each text seems to hover around 30%. When you are thinking about having something translated, it is a good idea to plan for some expansion.


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