It’s fun laughing at the German English translation you get when you use a free online translator. But it’s helpful to actually know what makes a German translation “Good”.
The following aims to help you assess the quality of a German English translation. It is designed as an introduction to a subject which is an academic discipline in itself.
I've taken as my starting point the guidelines issued by the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL), the professional body representing linguists in Great Britain.
The Institute runs a series of professional exams for linguists and their professional qualification for translators is the Diploma in Translation (Dip.Trans).
According to the CIOL guidelines for Diploma in Translation candidates, a professionally competent translation should be:
Ideally, you should be unaware that the English text you are reading is a translation from the German.
When marking its Diploma examinationa papers, the CIOL judges each German English translation according to three factors:
Let’s look at each of these categories in turn.
This is what the German translator should have been considering whilst working on their German English translation
Has the translator actually understood the original German text?! Do some of the words in the English translation appear out of context?
When I haven’t got the original German text in front of me for comparison purposes - does the English version sound like an original piece of writing?
This includes the correct use of verb tenses, correct translation of modal verbs (e.g. sollen - often means “is expected to” rather than “ought”).
Have words been missed out? - German is particularly keen on lots of apparently innocuous “filler” words such as doch, ebenso which can alter the stress or shift the meaning of a sentence.
The translated text will only be coherent if the translator has thoroughly understood the German original.
Well, it’s right or it’s wrong! (Although do be aware of linguistic conventions, e.g. in job adverts, we often use the future tense “The prospective candidate will have a proven record in...”, whereas the German uses the present tense, z.B.: “Ihr Durchsetzungskraft zeichnet Sie aus.” )
Do the sentences feel English? A whole paragraph can easily consist of a single German sentence. A translator will frequently need to break German sentences down into several shorter English sentences.
Transposition (the repositioning of clauses) is often required to make a German sentence sound “English”.
Look out for collocations (certain words habitually occurring together) - has the translator remembered them? E.g."to jump a queue", "to down a glass", "to argue a case", "to hold someone responsible". This is a key factor in making a text sound really English.
Is it a coherent piece of text which outlines an argument, tells a story, or explains a concept clearly? Does it read fluently? Or does it feel as though it has been translated on a sentence-by-sentence basis?
A text should have a beginning, middle and an end. Translators who mechanically translate one sentence after another can easily miss out the words which pull together arguments and lines of thought (furthermore, overall, however, etc.), and fail to understand the context of references in the latter part of the text.
E.g. is an abbreviation explained the first time it is used? If set phrases are repeated – does this sound deliberate, in order to stress a point, or has the translator just not bothered to come up with a synonym?
These include punctuation, spelling, accentuation, transfer of names, dates, figures etc. (There are several potential German translation pitfalls here!)
A good German English translation is judged
to be of a professional level when it is a well-written English text
which faithfully renders the meaning of the original German text and is
not obviously a translation. And how to improve your own German translations?
Practice, practice, practice.
A great exercise is to compare your own German English translation with ones you find on the web; here are sources for free German translations - have a go at translating the German text and then check your English version against the one you find online. You'll be amazed how much you learn!
Return to Top