> German Culture


German Culture & Translation

Because it's more than just getting the words right!


When it comes to producing good German language translations, understanding German culture and traditions is almost as important as understanding the German language itself.

A bit of an overstatement?

Not really. Translators need to understand the cultural conventions of Germany (or Austria, Switzerland etc.) when analysing the original German text.

They also have to think about how aware their reader(s) will or won’t be of a particular phrase or phenomenon – and what terms need explaining.


We call it cultural transposition

What do I mean?

Well, for instance the concept of Hort (after-school care) only makes sense when you realize that the primary school day in German-speaking countries often ends at 12:00 or 13:00, so working parents need somewhere for kids to be looked-after in the afternoon.

Or that a Heurigen is more than just a restaurant, and could well be closed for weeks at a time if the owners are working their vineyards.

This process of translating Germany's cultural phenomena for an English-speaking audience is called cultural transposition.

Peter Newmark, in his classic A Textbook of Translation defines culture as:


“The way of life and its manifestations peculiar to a community using a particular language as its means of expression.”

We can roughly divide aspects of German culture as they relate to translation into the following 5 categories:


1. German Names & Titles

Names:

Some German names must be carried over directly into the German translation (people), others need to be adapted or “naturalised” (names of organisations).

Some have authorized English equivalents, e.g. Sankt Johannes – Saint John, Wien – Vienna, Petersdom – St Peter’s Basilica. Wikipedia is a great help here!

Titles:

Titles can be minefield for translators. Whereas the Anglo-Saxons tend to be rather less formal about titles in a business environment, Austrians (in particular) just love them and list them all when given the chance!

Titles such as “Dr” are internationally understood, but a “Professor” can be anyone from a high school teacher to the chair of a university department.


2. German Material Culture

  • Food (Wienerschnitzel, Kaiserschmarren)
  • Clothes (Dirndl, Trachten)
  • Houses and towns (Einfamilienhaus)
  • Transport (Straßenbahn, Schnellbahn, ICE)

Your job as a translator is to decide the extent to which these aspects of material German culture need to be explained / glossed, e.g. Autobahn – probably not at all, Kaiserschmarren & Knödel – very likely yes (although English food descriptions always seem much less appetizing than their German equivalents!)


German Loanwords

Some German words & concepts are so German culture-specific that we've simply adopted the German original into the English language.

These German loan words - e.g. Schadenfreude, Hinterland, Zeitgeist, Weltanschauung, Weltschmerz - are usually italicised in the English target text to highlight their foreign origin.

3. Social German Culture & Customs

For German holidays, religious festivals, customs and national events, the translator will have to consider the popularity and universality of various activities before deciding whether to leave, to translate or to gloss the term.

Oktoberfest , for example, is known worldwide, having spawned several international imitators, but the excesses of Rosenmontag in Germany, or Fasching in Austria, may well require some explanation.

Although we all celebrate Weihnachten, dates and customs vary significantly.


4. Historical Events

German Idioms & Historical Settings

08/15 or nullachtfünfzehn refers to a type of German WWI machine gun, with which the German troops were regularly drilled.

It soon became a synonym for “normal”, “routine”.

The gun was used again in WWII by which time it had become outdated, giving the expression 08/15 its current meaning of “run of the mill”, “nothing special”.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, German 20th century history in particular has left its mark on the linguistic landscape.

Many historical concepts, names and descriptions are so rooted to their time and place that they require no translation (Führer, Blitzkrieg, Lebensraum, Anschluss), although perhaps some additional explanation is advisable where the target audience is very general, or young.

Other German cultural terms, such as Jugendstil (the German and Austrian version of the UK & US Arts and Crafts movement, French and Belgian Art Nouveau or Italian Liberty Style) reflect parallel historical developments.

As a result they are similar but not equivalents, needing additional explanation rather than translation.

Fancy experiencing some German culture yourself, and getting a little more off the beaten path? Take a look at Uncommon Travel Germany for inspiration, as well as background on several locations of particular historical interest.


5. Organisations & Social Systems

Official organisations:

Luckily there are many established English translations for German political and administrative organizations, government ministries and public authorities etc.

In our global world, the English versions of official websites are an absolute boon to the German translator: even when the translator might have translated the term in a different manner, official website designations have the authority of a dictionary!

For example, my instinct is to translate the Austrian Wirtschaftskammer with the succinct Chamber of Commerce, but the official translation is Austrian Federal Economic Chamber.

Other terms are well recognized, e.g. Bundestag – German Federal Parliament, Bundesrat – Council of Constituent States, the German Upper House, and for an educated readership these terms can probably be left, and glossed a bit for a more general public (“German parliament”).

Education system:

Translating texts on education can be much trickier.

For example, the German school leaving exam, Abitur, (Matura in Austria) is similar to the American high school diploma, but there is no UK equivalent.

Whereas in Anglo-Saxon circles a “diploma” is usually a non-university qualification, in German-speaking regions it often implies a higher level of qualification (university).

Qualification equivalencies, titles, degrees, course contents – their accurate translation is often a topic of great debate in translator forums.


The German Translation Challenge

When it comes to dealing with terms which reflect German culture, the translator has 3 options:

  1. Don't translate: if you decide your English-speaking audience will understand the German cultural phenomenon then leave the term unchanged - Oktoberfest , Wiener Schnitzel, Lederhosen - and in italics so readers know it is a deliberate decision.
  2. Official translation: Use the standard, authorized translation - The Battle of Leipzig - or the term the organisation calls itself - Federal Ministry of xxx.
  3. Gloss: help your audience with an explanation, e.g Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway operator. 

I guess you could say that the German translator has to perform a balancing act when dealing with aspects of German culture.

The German translation must clearly convey the intended message of the original German text in a manner suitable for the target audience, yet at the same time it must acknowledge that German cultural phenomena cannot always be translated on a like-for-like basis and require a certain amount of glossing.

It's a challenge, but definitely part of the fun of working in German translation!


Top of Page

> German Culture






Hi, I'm Joanna!

Welcome to my German translation website, here to help with all things translation. If you're interested, my story here.



 What visitors say


"Liebe Joanna, ich möchte dir ganz herzlich für die vielen nützlichen Informationen danken. Es ist extrem hilfreich. Vielen, vielen Dank!" 
Silke, Germany

"It's really great to see a website dedicated to the translation of only a single language. There are too many general websites around on the web."
Roshni, India

"Thanks, your website is really helpful to read about advice on getting started as a German translator....very grateful!"
Georgie, UK

"Ich bin auf deine Webseite gestoßen und finde die Seite super. Informativ, lebendiger Schreibstill. Danke für deine inspirierende Seite! Beste Grüße!"
Feng, China


Tell us what you think!


Translator essentials


 Others are reading...


Learning german?


Click here to join the Heinrich family: learn German & explore German culture with this great video series.



 Recommended


 Got a question?

Something you want to ask about German translation? 

Check out the Q&As or Ask Me!


The nuts & bolts





Visit the Top German Sites!

Protected by Copyscape Online Copyright Protection