German and English: the Keys to Translation

For anyone who requires translation from German to English, or the inverse, a common question will concern how these two languages differ. Despite the fact that these are both Germanic languages, so their vocabulary has broadly similar roots, it is worth considering the fundamental differences which are crucial to translation.

  • Compound nouns

Most anglophiles who have studied German will highlight compound nouns as one of the stranger features of the language. Extremely long compound nouns are not uncommon in German and they can present a challenge to those seeking to translate this into English as there often is no direct translation. They will instead be translated into several words or an entire phrase in English, rather than the one word which would express all of this in German.

  • Gender

Nouns in German are either male, female, or neutral, as is indicated by the definite or indefinite articles; der, die, das etc. In English all nouns are gender-less, so this difference must be kept in mind when translating into German. Choosing the wrong form of the article can cause significant confusion in a translation and distort the meaning of a text, so they merit consideration when translating. 

  • Word order

Arguably the biggest difference between the two languages is the word order. Sentence structure varies a lot more in German than it does in English, which makes translations between the two languages potentially challenging. Generally speaking, the verb is the second aspect of the sentence in German, but this is not set in stone. Certain conjunctions can change the word order, generally with the verb either coming immediately after them or moving to the end of the sentence. Verbs also complicate the word order when an auxiliary is also used so one verb comes as the second part of the sentence and the other is at the end, or when a split verb is used, and the same thing happens. This must be carefully considered when translating between the two languages, to ensure that you preserve the meaning of the original sentence.

Now that you have read about the key differences between German and English, why not take a glance at our articles on the essential features of translation between other pairs of languages.


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