3 Things to bear in mind when translating between German and English
1. Gender-marking of nouns
It is commonly known that German assigns grammatical gender to every noun, marked by the definite articles ‘der, die, das’ or the indefinite articles ‘ein / eine’. Whilst this in itself may cause non-natives to struggle with writing in German, it usually does not cause any issues with translations into English.
More of an issue in translation is the gender-marking of nouns such as people’s professions.
Let’s consider the following example: a German report about participants of a clinical study may read: ‘Eine Studentin aus Freiburg hatte leichte Symptome; ein Architekt aus Berlin zeigte stärkere Symptome auf.’
The words ‘Studentin’ and ‘Architekt’ determine through their endings that the student in question is female and the mentioned architect is male. The translator has to make a decision here.
The more graceful option would be ‘A student from Freiburg had mild symptoms; an architect from Berlin showed stronger symptoms’ – which does, however, leave out extra information. Here, the translator has to choose, whether the specification of the participant’s gender is vital information or whether it is trivial enough to be lost in translation. In case of the clinical study, a translator may decide that the gender of the people could be relevant for further insights.
In order to express all the information, the translator can opt for the wordier version ‘A female student from Freiburg had mild symptoms; a male architect from Berlin showed stronger symptoms’ – which does not read as well stylistically but conveys the meaning more accurately.
2. Varying synonymy
Direct synonyms are rare in any language – there is usually a nuance in meaning. This issue increases in translation and translators have to evaluate context carefully in order to choose the correct word. Often, this comes down to making choices regarding the level of specificness of the chosen word in the target language.
View, look at, watch, behold, see
Space, court, position, location, place
Ghost, mind, spirit
Suchen, forschen, fahnden
Sich benehmen, sich verhalten
Landwirt, Bauer, Gutsherr
Choosing the most accurate word requires a deep evaluation of the context as well as skilful work with a dictionary to be certain of nuances in meaning and usage.
3. Subjunctive of reported speech (Konjunktiv I)
One major grammatical difference between German and English is the existence of Konjunktiv I (Subjunctive I) in German – which expresses reported speech.
In lots of cases, German writers or speakers substitute the subjunctive with a normal indicative form + an adverb or phrase expressing reported speech, such as ‘angeblich’.
Sie sagt, sie habe gut zugesehen. → Angeblich hat sie gut zugesehen.
Consequently, when the subjunctive of reported speech is present, it appears as a deliberate choice by the writer, which opens stylistic opportunities and needs to be worked around during translation into English.
The Konjunktiv I enables ongoing reported speech without constant clarification that the speech is still being reported.
Example: Herr Schneider zufolge sei die Wohnung in gutem Zustand. Er habe sie gründlich geputzt und sie sei außerdem auf weitere Mängel überprüft worden.
The words ‘sei‘ and ‘habe’ mark the subjunctive of reported speech. The second sentence does not clarify that the speech is still reported by any other means than by the subjunctive. This allows for a smooth reporting and also allows a clear shift between narrator, who will speak in indicative, and the recited speaker, who will be reported through the subjunctive.
English lacks this grammatical structure. It often tries to resolve the issue by speaking in a past tense but in many cases clarification of reported speech becomes necessary to avoid those sentences sounding like claims by the narrator. Our sample sentence translated may sound like this:
‘According to Mr Schneider, the apartment is in good condition. He claims to have cleaned it thoroughly and assures that it had been checked for further defects.’
The fragments ‘he claims’ and ‘assures’ have been added by the translator here to ensure that it does not sound factual. It is important for translators to consider the subjunctive of reported speech and how they can convey its meaning in their translation to English.
There are many more differences between German and English that can make translation more complicated. Interested in learning more of them? Keep up with our blog!