5 considerations for German translation

Many people believe that if you can speak another language, you can translate into, from or between your languages. This simply isn’t the case.

Translation is a skill, an art, and some would even say a science.

To understand why this is not possible, we have to look into the similarities and differences between languages, the cultures those languages are founded on, and pragmatics; the way language is used in practice.

The difference between learning and interpreting in other languages

Whilst training to be a German, French and Spanish into English translator, I spent a number of years in Wales, where many of my friends and colleagues spoke Welsh as their first language. Despite them being bilingual in English and Welsh, there were many occasions where they struggled to convey to me in English something they had just discussed in Welsh – even if the conversation was only a basic one. Being a linguist, this fascinated me. At the time, I could understand why I may not know a word or concept in my foreign languages, but neither Welsh nor English was foreign to my friends; they had been brought up learning both.

So, why couldn’t they translate something so simple?

Learning new languages vs. native language

Although they were brought up speaking both languages, they were not used to speaking both ‘at the same time’ or within the same conversation. They may speak Welsh at home with friends and family and English in college, when watching TV or listening to the radio. They learnt their languages in context, and in a natural way, just as we all do our mother tongue.

On the other hand, those of us who are not naturally bilingual, learn our foreign languages via our mother tongue.

From day one, we compare, contrast and refer back to our own language in order to understand the ‘equivalent’ expression or concept. So, we are constantly making connections between our native language and the language we are trying to learn.

Studying translation vs. studying languages

When studying translation, we learn how each language approaches a topic, and you delve much deeper into analysing what is happening in your languages ‘behind the scenes’; things you may never have considered before. This is what enables a professionally trained translator to ensure that the text they render considers all necessary aspects of translation, including accuracy, naturalness and cultural references.

These are things that natural bilinguals and those who have studied language, but not translation, are perhaps unaware of.

What to consider with German translation

With all of the above in mind, I have pinpointed 5 differences between German and English, which must be considered when translating from or into German. The list is far from exhaustive, but should demonstrate some of the areas to be aware of:

1. Nominalisation

German is much more of a nominative language, whereas English is more of a verbal language. We often see nouns being used in German, where verbs are more natural in English. This is likely due to the grammatical differences between both languages, which render information processing easier.

2. Order of information

Typically, German is a much more head final language than English, meaning it saves the best until last. Often starting sentences with less important information, or information already known by the reader, and ending the sentence with the new piece of information or main and most important piece of information.

This can often result in sentences, or even paragraphs being flipped and switched around compared to English.

3. The passive voice

The passive voice is much more common in English than in German. Often, when the passive voice is used in German, additional changes are seen in the sentence, such as the introduction of prepositional phrases. These can lead to significant word order differences between the two languages. Whilst increasing cognitive load and processing effort for the German reader, it allows for a shorter more concise sentence to be formed, which results in an overall more manageable and less ambiguous text.

Analysing the differences between the passive and active voice, it can be seen that they are used to achieve a different aim in both languages.

English uses the passive in general, for example, to guide the audience with ease and accessibility to the main point.

4. Accessibility and reader/writer relationship

Various linguistic studies have shown that there is a tendency in English to write with readers in mind – guiding them, as is the case with the passive voice, to facilitate understanding. On the other hand, German writers tend to demonstrate more complexity in their texts. Rather than aiding the reader to understand, they often leave accessibility and comprehension of a text up to the responsibility of the reader.

5. Text expansion

Text expansion and contraction is something that happens naturally in translations for all languages to various degrees. However, comparative studies of German and English show that English texts are often expanded more, and on purpose, in order to ensure greater ease of information processing. Again, expanding the text is intrinsically linked to the points mentioned above.

When using professional, qualified, native linguists, they’ll be aware of all of these considerations and be able to advise on any cultural differences, but someone who just speaks the language, may not be able to accurately convey the key messaging of your content, which could result in a lot of wasted time and cost.


Gary studied French, German and Spanish as an undergraduate, and then went on to complete an MA in Translation and Interpreting studies. Since leaving university, he has held positions in licensing, project management and account management, and also works as a freelance translator. In his spare time, he likes to play the piano, travel and keep fit, as well as socialising, of course!

Share this story

Sign up to our newsletter

Sign up