German Culture and Translation

A good German language translation has never just been about translating the language into other languages using a word to word method. It is important to understand both German traditions and culture if a translation is to be fully accurate. A knowledgeable German translator will also be aware of how well another language speaker will understand a German translation. This may depend on the educational or knowledge level of the audience.

This process for translating cultural phenomena in Germany for an English-speaking audience is referred to as cultural transposition.

Aspects of German Culture for Translation Purposes Fall into 5 Categories:

  1. German Titles and Names

Some German names can be transferred directly when translated into another language such as people’s names while others may need a certain amount of adaptation. Titles like Dr. are understood internationally, but the title ‘professor’ can be somebody from a university or even a high school educator.

  1. German Material Culture

There are a few German concepts and words that are so German specific culturally that instead of translating them they are adopted as loan words in English, such as Hinterland, Schadenfreude, Zeitgeist, Weltanschauung and Weltschmerz.

  1. German Customs and Culture

Translators have a difficult time accurately translating German religious festivals, holidays, customs and national events so depending on the context of the translation sometimes the words aren’t translated at all but are left in the German language. This includes festivals such as Oktoberfest which are internationally renowned events and don’t need to be precisely translated. People at a young age may require further explanation as to what Oktoberfest means.

  1. Historical Events

08/15 or nullachtfünfzehn is a WW1 German machine gun used by German troops. At one point it became known as a synonym for “normal” or “routine.” The gun in WW2 saw its appearance but it was outdated and was labelled with the expression 08/15 which today means either nothing special or run of the mill. German history in the 20th century has introduced some well-known words into the linguistic landscape. Words that require little English translation include Blitzkrieg, Führer, Anschluss and Lebensraum. However, young people may not completely understand the concepts so may need some explanation in English.

  1. German Organizations and Social Systems

There are many English translations for many German political and administrative organizations. However, that doesn’t mean an English translation based on an English equivalent accurately translates the concept. For example, a direct translation of Austrian Wirtschaftskammer would be Chamber of Commerce, but its official translation is actually Austrian Federal Economic Chamber.

However, there are other terms that are easy to recognize such as Bundestag which is the German Federal Parliament, Bundestat, which is the Council of Constituent States, or the German Upper House. For educated people at least these terms do not require any English translations.

Some educational terminology varies in its meaning in the English speaking world. For example, Abitur which is the school-leaving examination in Germany resembles the U.S.A. high school diploma but in Britain there is nothing that is equivalent. A more detailed description of Abitur is required for British English speakers.

In the Anglo-Saxon educational context, a diploma is typically a qualification that is not earned at a university but in the German-speaking environment it relates to a high-level university qualification. So translators continually argue about what terms need fuller translations and explanations.

The German Translation Challenge

There are 3 Options Available when a Translator is Confronted with German Terms which are:

1. It is not necessary to translate them if the English speaker who is targeted is likely to understand them such as Oktoberfest, Lederhosen and Wiener Schnitzel. If the words are put in italics the reader should realize they are original German.

2. If the full translation isn’t given but some explanation is required like for Deutsche Bahn,
this can be elaborated by explaining it is the German national railway operator.

3. The translation must convey clearly the message of the German text in a way that makes it suitable for the targeted audience. It should also acknowledge that it is not always possible to translate German cultural phenomena precisely into English.