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Should I Translate From English to German Too?

Translating into – and out of – your native language

Occasionally I’m asked if I could also translate from English to German.

I politely say “No”.

Because I know that, however hard I try, my written German will never be as good as that of a native German speaker, someone who has grown up speaking and writing German all their life.

I have no problem with this – my professional existence is based on native German speakers needing English texts, and not having written English language skills that match mine.

Aren't some German translators bilingual?

Well, it rather depends what you mean by “bilingual”.

Let’s have a few definitions first:

  • First language = “L1” = “mother tongue” = the language obtained during childhood (irrespective of formal education).
  • Monolingual = someone who speaks only their first language. They are “native speakers” of their “native language”.
  • Simultaneous / native bilingual = someone who acquires 2 languages informally during childhood. Often the parents speak 2 different languages and the family lives in a monolingual environment. (That would be my kids: living in a German-speaking environment , speaking  German with my husband, and English with me.)
  • Multilingual = someone proficient in two (bilingual) or more languages (trilingual, etc.)

Now these are only broad categories and the borders between them are a bit hazy.

For example: How proficient do I have to be in my second language to qualify as “bilingual”? Am I bilingual if I speak German and English fluently, or do I also have to write equally well in both languages? What if I'm an ace linguist, but although I’ve mastered my second language brilliantly, I didn’t learn it as a child? - Can I still be bilingual?

When it comes to “bilingualism” even the experts don’t even seem to agree:

  • For some linguists, multilingualism (which includes bilingualism) implies an equal level of fluency and control in each language, whereas for others it also includes a lesser level of proficiency, e.g. just being able to get by in more than one language.
  • Linguists appear to largely agree that, even amongst simultaneous bilinguals, the speaker will be more proficient in one of the two languages.
  • According to Wikipedia, generally linguists believe that “native speakers of a given language have, in some respects, a level of skill which a second (or subsequent) language learner can never reliably accomplish”.

So should I translate from English to German or not?

Not being bilingual myself, I find this a tricky subject.

My gut feeling is that most translators will only feel totally confident translating into their mother tongue.

But warning - this is a controversial topic and I have no wish to query the abilities of many good translators out there!

If you are a native English speaker, have learned German as a second language and translate German into English – like me – then this is probably the language direction you should stick to.

If you are a simultaneous German English bilingual who grew up speaking both German and English (and have a natural affinity for language and the necessary education!) then you may well be a candidate for translating in both directions.

Remember, language proficiency depends on more than simply growing up speaking more than one language; it is also determined by your own linguistic ability, the linguistic environment in which you live or grow up, and your education.

Which means, in the end, only you will know how proficient you are.

translate from English to German

Interview series:

Meet German medical translator Karin Schafheutle who translates from English to German AND German to English. A good example of a German translator qualified to translate in both directions.

Other considerations...

We’re back to context again.

An important part of understanding a language is understanding context. This is something intangible, something you pick up unconsciously, usually by living in that specific cultural environment.

Which means that if you also plan to translate from English to German, are you sufficiently confident of understanding all the nuances of your texts? Have you lived/been immersed in a German-speaking environment for a sufficiently long period? Do you understand the historical references? Regional variations? Social conventions? Etc.

Take job references, for example. They are a linguistic minefield in German – specific phrases have very precise meanings, and there is no leeway whatsoever.

Translate a reference incorrectly and there can be legal ramifications. This is not the case in English where references don’t reflect such a defined linguistic scheme.  Here's a great article on the subject (in German).

translate from English to German

TIP! Check a translator's qualifications. For example, my Diploma in Translation from the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL) is specifically for the language combination from German to English.

Where a German translator is also officially qualified to translate in the opposite direction, i.e. from English to German, then you can be very confident that the German translation they produce will be of a professional standard.

Another example is rude words. I still find it hard to truly “feel” how bad some naughty words or expressions are! (Solution? Stay polite!) I didn’t grow up using these expressions and lack the innate understanding of how/when/where they are used/not used.

On the other hand, if you are a technical translator, translating specialized technical texts, then you will be largely working with a set body of accepted, technical terminology and phraseology (medical, biological, IT, metallurgical etc. etc.) for which there are “standard”, recognized translations. So here again, this might well be an instance where a translator is qualified to translate from English to German, and vice versa.

The same would apply to legal translations, as an understanding of the specialist terminology involved in both languages is vital in order to translate correctly in either direction.

As a highly specialized translator, I would think that being able to translate English and German in both directions would be an extremely valuable asset.

Well enough from me on this topic.

I hope it’s given you some food for thought and maybe a clearer idea about what to say when you’re next asked to translate from English to German!

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German to English Translation

Joanna Scudamore-Trezek

I'm a German to English translator living and working in Vienna, Austria. I turn German texts into clear and accessible English, allowing clients to present their stories, ideas and information to a completely new audience. My business and marketing clients rely on me to get their message across clearly and effectively.  How can I help you today?

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