Don’t Fall into The Denglish Trap: Translating English to German
The former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt once famously insulted people with innovative ideas that were far too lofty for his taste by remarking: “If you have visions you should go to the doctor.” While Schmidt’s disparagement of visionaries dates back to the 1980s, it still accurately describes one aspect of doing business in Germany that you should be aware of when localizing your products and services.
It goes both ways when translating and localizing from German to English and vice versa. Leading your presentation with numbers and facts and the little steps that you’ll take to achieve your goals will most likely get you blank stares from your US audience, if not outright rejection for lack of ambition. In Germany, on the other hand, you risk being laughed off the stage if you present your “disruptive” idea that is going to make “the world a better place” while failing to back it up with a detailed business plan full of facts, numbers, and equations.
Another classic challenge that we at Venga thoroughly discuss with our clients is the question of how to address a German audience appropriately. The dreaded distinction between the formal “Sie” and the causal “Du” — a non-issue in English — has turned out to be a moving target in recent years. There used to be fairly clean cut rules about when to use the formal “Sie” and when “Du” would be allowed, but social media and the ever growing influence of American culture have made the lines fuzzy.
Not too long ago, nobody over 20 in Germany would have imagined using the informal “Du” to talk to a stranger of a similar age or older. Now the rules have become a bit looser and “Du” is becoming more and more prevalent. So if a company does not want to come across as stiff and out of touch or, on the other side of the spectrum, as disrespectful, it is essential to define the target group for the localized content as sharply as possible.
At Venga we make sure to assign specialists to any translation task, who are native speakers and currently live in-country for the target language. This not only ensures that they are familiar with the latest cultural trends, but also that their language stays pure and is not tarnished by those little things you inadvertently pick up if you live in a foreign country for a long time.
As English and German are so closely related, there is the danger that you will end up with Denglish. Denglish is a translated version of English or German, that is grammatically and semantically correct but still doesn’t hit the right tone. Avoiding words and phrases that Germans perceive as English, even though they are not actually used by native English speakers, like “public viewing” (which is used in German to describe the public screening of an event such as a soccer game) or “handy” (which means “cell phone”), is the easy part. Adhering to a more casual writing style and structuring a story in an English way rather than a German one, is one more challenge you have to address. Content translated from English to German also tends to be considerably longer which either requires reformulating to make content shorter or adjusting the layout to allow for more space.