Learn how to translate German properly with my free online lesson. I will share with you my top tips for translating German as well as warn you about the big ‘no-nos’.
If you are new to translating German you may become quickly frustrated – I know I certainly did. However, please remember: translation is not easy and it takes many years of practice and a great deal of skill to become a professional German translator. In fact, it is probably best to think of it as an art form which is learned over time.
Just before we get started, I would like to clarify a few terms that you will come across in this section:
- Source language = The language in which the original document is written.
- Target language = The language into which the document is being translated
Also, please note these two approaches to translation:
- Metaphrase = A literal, word-for-word translation.
- Paraphrase = For clarity’s sake, translating using different words in order to express the same meaning in the target language.
Need some examples? Or wondering why all these terms are important for you to understand? Then, let’s start reading my tips on how to translate German.
(N.B. For my non-native English speaking visitors: As the majority of visitors to this website are native English-speakers I will generally refer to ‘native English speakers’ and ‘translating into English’. Please bear in mind, however, that these tips apply irrespective of your native language.)
By the way, in my efforts to best help you speak German easily and effortlessly, I've teamed up with the Rocket German Learning System.
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It's an interesting system for learning German in that the focus is to help you engage in meaningful conversation within a short period of time.
1.) Always translate equivalents
One of the most fundamental mistakes you can make is to always translate literally i.e. ‘word-for-word’. As you translate always find an equivalent phrase in the target language.
Sometimes you may be able to translate literally but, more often than not, you will have to paraphrase in order to avoid nonsensical phrases or grammatical and stylistic errors in the target language.
You only have to look at a handful of German proverbs to understand why this is so important. For example, if you translated this German proverb ‘Aus einer Mϋcke einen Elefanten machen’ literally into English this would be the result: ‘Making an elephant out of a mosquito’, rather than its true English equivalent ‘Making a mountain out of a molehill’.
Always bear in mind: if you translate German into English no-one should be able to guess the original piece was written in German as it should sound completely natural once translated into English.
However, the overall meaning of the phrase in the source language must be conveyed in the target language.
So, I reiterate: you must translate the meaning of a phrase and not always simply the individual words themselves. Getting the right balance between literal translation and paraphrasing is the real art of translation which only a 'human' German translator can properly judge.
In a nutshell: when you are translating – in whatever form – you must always ask yourself these two important questions:
- Is this how a native speaker of the target language might say this?
- Has the translation kept its original meaning in the source language?
2.) Imitate style of original author
Linked to this is the need to imitate the writing style of the original author. For example, if the text in the source language is written in a witty and humorous manner then you need to make sure your translation into the target language conveys this.
Likewise, if the subject is more serious, then your translated version needs to reflect this.
3.) Accommodate culture of target language
As well as accommodating the style of the target language, you should also accommodate its culture. For example, when translating from your native language into German you should know that in Germany there is a formal and informal way of addressing somebody, depending on whom you are speaking to and/or how well you know that person.
If you use the informal address during a situation which requires more formality, you run the risk of upsetting the other person.
Likewise, ‘Fräulein’ – the old-fashioned word for Miss - has ceased to be used in German and, in fact, some see it as being offensive, as literally translated it means 'little woman'. Click here to go to my German greetings lesson where these two aspects are discussed in greater detail.
As these two examples demonstrate, a knowledge and understanding of the German culture is invaluable when translating and demonstrates again why it is generally agreed that the best translations are produced by those translating from their second language into their native language.
4.) Learn some basic German grammar
If you are not up-to-speed with the basics of German grammar then, I will be honest, translating German could become a bit of a nightmare. I suggest you read my easy, beginner level German grammar lessons to get you started.
For example, in German the verb is often situated at the end of the sentence and thus you will have to read the sentence virtually back to front before you can even begin to think of translating it! A little knowledge of German grammar really is, therefore, essential when you translate German.
5.) Watch out for the ‘false friends’
Don’t be fooled by ‘false friends’ as you translate German. ‘False friends’ are sets of words or phrases which are spelled the same or very similarly in two different languages but actually have a different meaning. For example:
Source language (German): Art
Target language translation (English): kind, type (not art)
Source language (German): Chef
Target language translation (English): boss (not chef)
Source language (German): fast
Target language translation (English): almost (not fast)
6.) Choose the right word
When checking the meaning of a word in a dictionary, you should not simply accept the first definition you come across. Rather, look at the whole sentence (or paragraph if needs be) in context and consider what might be the most fitting definition from those listed. If you are still unsure do a ‘back-translation’.
For example, if you checked the German translation of an English word, then check back the word from German to English to make sure it still means the same in English.
Interesting fact: A number of German loanwords have been adopted into the English language as translators recognized there was no direct equivalent in English. Please bear in mind, however, there are very few words in German which cannot be translated into English.
7.) Immerse yourself in German
The only way you will be able to truly translate German properly is to understand the language inside and out. Apart from living in Germany, which is the ideal solution, you should read and listen to the language as much as possible.
If you are a beginner why not read some German children’s books? Or why not listen to German radio or watch German TV? Even better, why not try and get in touch with some native German-speakers? The possibilities really are endless.
Please click here to go to my ‘Top Tips for learning German’ where you will find these possibilities discussed in greater detail.
8.) Do not rush a translation
A good translation takes time and I mean lots of it, particularly if you are 'trainee' German translator. You will find you are constantly looking up words in a dictionary as well as familiarizing yourself with various aspects of German grammar and other German language nuances.
Therefore, make sure you always set aside enough time to translate German. I guarantee it will take longer than you think!
9.) Make sure you have the right tools
In addition to an excellent German to English / English to German dictionary, a useful German phrase book and basic German grammar book will also be very helpful when you translate German.
10.) Remember to check conversions
When translating it’s important to ensure that currencies and units of measurements, for example, are converted correctly into the target language.
For instance, in Germany kilometres are used for distances, whereas in other parts of the world miles are used. Similarly, in Germany kilograms and grams are used for weight, but in other countries stones and pounds are the norm. Be aware of these differences when you translate German and convert to the target language’s system where necessary.
11.) Get the gist of the entire document
Even before you begin to translate read through the entire document to get a feel for the theme and style of the translation. If possible, allow yourself time to digest the information, ideally at least a couple of hours in between reading it and starting the translation.
You will be surprised at how much this ‘big picture’ overview will help you to translate the individual parts of the document.
12.) Read around the subject matter
Before you start work on your translation you should research the subject area in the target language. This will help you identify important terminology and current buzz-words associated with the topic.
This tip is particularly important if the subject is specialist or technical in nature such as within the fields of law, engineering, medicine and science.
Once you’ve finished your translation and have completed an automatic spell check (if possible) you must proofread the entire text once, twice, maybe three times. I promise, each time you do this you will find another phrase or word which could be better translated.
This tip is so easy to implement (if you’ve left yourself enough time) and yet so effective. In an exam scenario it could be the difference between passing and failing and in a business situation the difference between being understood and not.
14.) Practice makes perfect (or in German ‘Übung macht der Meister’)
When learning any new skill, practice makes perfect and this is certainly no different when it comes to learning how to translate German. As discussed earlier it takes professional German translators many years of painstaking practice to reach ‘expert’ levels. So, please try not to get too frustrated.
One day it will, I promise, all suddenly click into place and, of course, the more often you translate German the quicker this will happen...
Oh and quickly - but importantly! In order to help you learn German properly, I've recently decided to partner up with the Rocket German Learning System. Do you know why? Well, after months and months researching and testing sooooo many different learning systems for this website, I'm confident this is the quickest, easiest and most enjoyable way to learn German. I really recommend clicking here to find out from me personally why you need this in your life :)
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