What shapes and defines a quality German or English translation
A brief discourse

According to Merriam-Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, Malcolm Cowley defined translation “as an art that involves the re-creation of a work in another language for readers with a different background.” Hence, a translation is a rendering or the product of such a rendering of something from one language or into another language. 

The above definition certainly clarifies what a translation is. However, it does not address the quality of a translation, which can vary greatly – from terrible to superb. For translations, quality generally refers to the inherent or intrinsic excellence embodied in terms like quality goods, quality leather, quality writing, etc.

Measuring the quality of a translation is, therefore, not always easy for a customer, particularly German native speakers reading English translations of their source materials, or conversely English speakers reading German translations of their texts. Unless the reader is proficient enough in the target language, it is tough to assess the quality of the translation is. Yet, one can use a few basic yardsticks, such as:

  1. Accuracy – does the German–English translation accurately reflect the content or message of the source material?
  2. Grammar and usage – is the translation grammatically correct? Does it follow the rules for constructing sentences? Bear in mind that there are many schools of grammatical thought, relevant theories are in flux, and that language is a living creature. The Chicago Manual of Style (www.chicagomanualofstyle.org) is one good reference.
  3. Punctuation – this, like usage, does allow for subjectivity, but is subject to certain principles and traditional practice. Since the purpose is to promote ease of reading, the question is whether the German–English translation fulfills that task.
  4. Spelling – for matters of spelling we use and suggest that our readers also use a good dictionary like Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (www.merriam-webster.com) or others like the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. Good spell checkers in word processors are invaluable too.
  5. Purpose – in the end, the target audience is crucial. The German–English translator needs to ask if the translation is right for the intended readers. This means basically knowing whether the piece of work is destined to be a press release, an agreement, a presentation, an advertisement, a user manual for some equipment, a newsletter, email for internal use only, etc., and accordingly adapt the style and usage.

We always seek to deliver natural, flowing, quality translations that readers (English or German) would consider written by a native of the target language. Nevertheless, the importance of quality, of course, varies, depending on the customer.

Most of our clients are interested in excellent German–English translations that reflect the high standards of their products or services. However, we do come across requests, in particular, for translations from German into English, with the remark, “The quality is not important. As long as the text is in English, Google will find us.” Here, the cost appears to be the primary concern, meaning as cheap as possible.

This poses a serious dilemma for us. It is hard for our professional translators to deliver what has commonly become known as “Denglish!” – typically a mixture of English and anglicized German, with convoluted phraseology and content that a native English speaker finds relatively hard to understand. It sounds strange, because the sentence construction mirrors that of the source material in German. At premier translations, we always decline such requests.

On the flip side, a poor-quality translation could, in a manner of speaking, be “good” for health, if it is hilarious. Sometimes, one simply cannot help bursting out in laughter at some of these “translations” from German into English! We’re sure you must have come across a faux pas at least once, particularly when traveling, perhaps something you saw in a restaurant menu or on a sign posted in a hotel? Below are a couple of side-splitting examples from the German speaking world:

  • In an Austrian hotel for skiers: “Not to perambulate the corridors during the hours of repose in the boots of ascension.”
  • Menu of a Swiss restaurant: “Our wines leave you nothing to hope for.”
  • Camping site in Germany: “It is strictly forbidden on our black forest camping site that people of different gender, for instance, men and women, live together in one tent unless they are married with each other for that purpose.”

These translations from German into English were likely done by individuals using only a dictionary. As Anthony Burgess, a British novelist, put it:

A word in a dictionary is like a car at a mammoth motor show, full of potential but temporarily inactive.”

One needs not just a word, but the right word. Mark Twain underscored this aspect when he commented:

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

As we all know, the same word in English or German can have numerous meanings in different contexts. It is thus the proper combination of words and phrases that communicates the desired meaning or message. Nathaniel Hawthorne summed it up succinctly:

“Words, so innocent and powerless as they are standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.”

If not done right, the words used could convey the intended meaning in a stilted, unnatural style. Moreover, a tiny error or poor choice of words may transform a German into English translation (or vice versa) from something harmless into something quite cataclysmic. Hence, it is the job of a good translator to comprehend the meaning and message of the source material in German (or English) and convey it as naturally and accurately as possible into the reader’s language.

This facet is where we at premier translations excel over our competitors. Sometimes we need to stick close to the source text and its style, mainly to make it easy for some clients to recognize their material. However, we do make a serious effort to deliver translations into German or English that flow and ease understanding. We realize that our job is to translate from German into English or the other way around, and to do our best to satisfy you, our customer. Our translators are proficient writers who can also proofread your speeches, presentations, correspondence, etc., or edit and rewrite these – if requested.  

One other crucial facet that should not be overlooked when looking for quality translations was described clearly by Bill Bryson, an American writer:

“Language is more fashion than science, and matters of usage, spelling, and pronunciation tend to wander around like hemlines.”

This underlying dynamism of the German and English languages is what we also strive to keep pace with and embody into our work, while paying special attention to the many new words constantly being added along with changes in usage.

Ah yes, there is yet another critical factor to keep in mind, if you want a quality translation from German into English or conversely – the turnaround time. As John Steinbeck said:

“It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”

Hence, whenever possible, do give the translator adequate time to be creative with the German–English translation, especially by setting a delivery deadline that allows one to literally sleep on it once before finalizing and delivering what we strive for – quality translations.

Well, after reading the above, some might say – but what about machine translations? Yes, we are quite aware that with the burgeoning popularity of the Internet, the use of online translation programs is also growing rapidly. Yet, we make the case that such programs, like the two popular ‘statistical machine translation’ services, namely Google Translate (Google Übersetzer for German users) and Bing Translator, are both still in their infancy. Although Google has been offering this service for over five years now, both these programs have a extremely long way to go before they will beat a good human translator.

In order to test our hypothesis, we felt this would be a good time to see where such automated translations are and what they can deliver. Consequently, we assembled a host of German into English and English into German translations rendered by us at premier translations, and compared these in September 2011 against the same ones done by Google Translate (or Google Übersetzer) and Bing Translator. Please click the links below to see the relevant comparisons:

Lovers of online translation services may counter, “But these programs do put forward alternatives, and one can easily improve the initial translation!” Sure one can do that, but how do you know which alternative word or phrase is right? That’s precisely the job of an experienced translator, who grasps what the writer of the source text wants to communicate. So why not simply leave it to the professional translator?

Ah, the cost you say? Certainly, the cost of a translation is almost always an issue. On this front, our response is: remember that translations are still done these days primarily by individuals using modern tools and aids. Therefore, an excellent translation from German into English or the other way around will certainly be more expensive than one churned out by machine translation services with minimal human input.

When seeking a translation service, you should ask yourself the question: do the minimal savings in translation expenses through a low-cost outfit (or software) justify any potential damage to your image or the subsequent trouble of having to invest your own valuable and expensive time to make necessary improvements? And what if you end up hiring a professional translator anyway?

To make our case, we believe that after you have perused through the comparisons of German into English and/or English into German translations, you will undoubtedly agree with us that our human translators by far surpass the machines. As to when machines will overtake humans, is anybody’s guess.

For now and the near future, though, we recommend the caliber of professional translators you will encounter at premier translations – experienced and qualified individuals who are capable of correctly comprehending the source material in German or English and translating even subtle nuances into their mother tongue, while paying due attention to the accuracy, grammar, usage, spelling, and punctuation of the translation.

We look forward to hearing from you via any of the following channels:

German-English translations