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Translating German Technical Documents Takes Special Skills

The German-speaking countries have a rich history in scientific and technical work. Famous physicists such as Einstein and Schroedinger produced groundbreaking work in German. Konrad Zuse described the first high-level programming language, Plankalkül, in the Archiv der Mathematik.

Today, many native German speakers write in English, which has become a universal language for science and technology. However, there is still a thriving literature in German, and routine technical documents are often in the author’s native language. Each language comes with its own Weltanschauung (world view), and translating German to English requires careful attention to its nuances. Machine translation won’t do a good job. Neither will translation by someone who isn’t strong in both languages or doesn’t have a technical background. Translating technical German is a specialized skill.

The German word for translation is “übersetzen,” which also means “to bring over.” Translation isn’t just a matter of replacing words with ones in a different language, but of bringing over the meaning and intention. It requires understanding of the text, not just rote skills.

Bad translation of technical documents isn’t just embarrassing; it can lead to dangerous or costly errors. Anyone who has tried to assemble a cabinet from incomprehensibly translated instructions has seen this on a relatively harmless, everyday level. When the instructions are for assembling a jet engine, the stakes are much higher.

How poor translation goes wrong

The language is notorious for its long compound words. Usually it’s possible to figure them out by breaking them up into their components. In specialized fields, though, they may have meanings that are more than the sum of their parts. In mathematics you can run into the term “Eigenwert,” which a non-specialist would translate as “own value.” That doesn’t convey its mathematical meaning, though. The correct translation, the one mathematicians understand, is “eigenvalue.”

Even simple words can be slippery. The word “wenn” can mean either “if” or “when,” depending on its context. In ordinary conversion, it might not matter so much whether you say “if that happens” or “when that happens,” but if (and when) you’re creating a formal logical structure, the difference can be critical.

Amateur translators can go wrong in two directions. A translation which captures the “spirit” of the original without being accurate in every detail is admirable when the work is fictional, but it’s a serious mistake when the subject is science or technology. On the other hand, translating each sentence in the most literal way will result in text that’s clumsy and difficult to read.

German tends toward long, complicated sentences. A good translator will break them up into two or more sentences in English.

Technical authors, working in any language, often coin words to express new concepts. The translator needs to recognize them and provide English equivalents. Using the German coinage directly may work, but not if it looks very difficult to English speakers.

Whoever turned “Eigenwert” into “eigenvalue” struck a good balance, but others haven’t done so well. Sigmund Freud devised some nice, simple words for aspects of the human mind: “das Ich” (the I), “das Es” (the it), and “das Über-Ich” (the over-I). Unfortunately, some translator loved Latin too much and rendered them as “the ego,” “the id,” and “the superego.” The result is that Freud seems much more esoteric to English-speaking readers than he really is.

English has constructions which make sentences flow more smoothly to our ears, but don’t have exact equivalents in German. Conversely, German has ways to build sentences that would sound ridiculous if translated word for word into English. A German sentence can put the direct object of a sentence first for emphasis. Doing that in English sounds like Yoda. The translator needs to rearrange the sentence while trying to keep the emphasis.

The pronoun “man” gets a lot of use in abstract writing. It can be translated literally as “one” (e.g., “One performs the procedure”), but that would sound excessively formal. Translators need to use alternatives that read smoothly (e.g., “The procedure is performed” or “The experimenter performs the procedure”).

Cultural awareness

Technology is universal. A telephone follows the same principles, whatever language people are speaking on it. Still, each country has a different culture, and this has effects even when describing technical issues. What people assume in one culture may need to be explicit in another. “30 Grad” translates correctly as “30 degrees,” but it indicates a hot temperature, not a freezing one. The default assumption in German-speaking countries is Celsius, but in English the default depends on what country the reader is from. The only safe approach is to make the units explicit.

Jargon is a tricky issue. Every technical field develops its own specialized vocabulary. A lot of it is borrowed from English, but it doesn’t always have the same meaning as the English equivalent. “Handy” sounds like a sensible English word, but in German it means “cell phone.” Translators need to handle these words carefully.

The tone needs to strike the right level of formality for the language. Too literal a translation of German text will sound ponderous in English. The translator needs to understand grammar and vocabulary, but also to know what sounds right. At the same time, it’s necessary to understand the technical issues well enough to carry specialized meanings over. Not everyone who knows both languages has those skill sets.

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