Know Your Languages: German
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German, the native language of more than 100 million people worldwide, is the most widely spoken first language in the European Union. Best known as the primary language of Germany, Austria and a large part of Switzerland, it’s also officially recognized in Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, eastern France, Denmark, Belgium, Poland, the north of Italy, and Namibia. Correctly concluding that each country has its own spoken variant of the language, you might ask the obvious question: Do I need to translate into different German dialects for different regions? The answer, as you might have guessed, is: It depends.

History of German

During the last millennium the German-speaking area of Europe was divided again and again into a multitude of states and regions, each one developing its own dialect of German, many of them mutually unintelligible. The various attempts at standardization resulted in several variations of ‘standard’ German, which, until the 1800s, were strictly written languages whose purpose was to allow writers to reach the largest possible audience. The 19th and 20th centuries saw several sweeping language reforms resulting in what is known today as Standard German or Hochdeutsch (‘high’ German, in a cultural or educational sense), which is the official written and spoken language of all German media and education worldwide.

German Dialects

Despite the existence of Hochdeutsch, many traditional dialects are still used today. These dialects differ from Hochdeutsch in syntax as well as pronunciation and vocabulary, and are often mutually unintelligible between each other and with Standard German. Arguably, they are different languages. Dialects are categorized as Low German or High German, so named for geographical reasons – the high ground of central and southern Germany or low ground of northern Germany – as opposed to social status (don’t confuse the High German dialects with the similarly-named Hochdeutsch). Well-known examples of the many High German dialects are Swabian, Alsatian, Silesian, Yiddish, Pennsylvania Dutch and Luxembourgish. Swiss German refers to the collection of High German dialects that are the everyday language in practically all aspects of daily life in Switzerland. This is not to be confused with Swiss Standard German, the formal Swiss variety of Standard German used in schools, universities and the public media. Low German dialects are less common today, but include Low Saxon and any of the local dialects found in northern Germany and the eastern part of the Netherlands.

Varieties of Standard German

Besides the recognized dialects, there are also local “varieties” of Standard German that differ from Standard German in vocabulary and pronunciation and may have subtle syntactical differences. The differences are more like the differences between American and British English, and speakers of Hochdeutsch or any one variety will generally understand speakers of another. Swiss Standard German and Austrian Standard German are good examples of the national varieties of Standard German, however many regional varieties also exist within each country. In certain regions, especially in northern Germany, the traditional dialects have been replaced by varieties of Standard German.


German Spelling Reform

Spelling reform in Germany goes back to 1880, when the first German dictionary was published (Duden). Those rules were made official in 1901 and they remained in use until the current reform. The current German spelling reform became official in August 2006. The goal was to make German easier to learn by simplifying spelling and grammar to make it more uniform and predictable. The latest reform was not without controversy – it took 8 years of debate before a consensus was reached.

German is Longer

German translations generally expand by about 20% from the original English, depending on source material and subject matter. They can expand by as much as 200% for headlines and short phrases.

Source English
German Translation
Speed Limit
Turn off Cookies
Annahme von Cookies verweigern
Dine in picturesque seclusion
Geniessen Sie ein Abendessen in malerischer Abgeschiedenheit

As you can see, this has important ramifications for websites, SEO text, and anything to do with Desktop Publishing or audio/video translations. Where text needs to remain the same character length as the English, you should provide your translation company with specific instruction so they can work with you to abbreviate. Text boxes that do not expand automatically or have screen limitations present particular challenges as the resulting truncation can be hard to spot. A process called, “In Context Editing” helps to identify and solve these typical language expansion issues before publishing your translations.

Implications for Business

When translating, you must first decide what the target reader is expecting. If you are translating legal text such as a contract, an employment agreement or the T&C and Privacy Policy for your website, for example, your target readers expect to read their national variety of Standard German and expect to see an application of that country’s legal system and vocabulary. You’ll need trained legal translators from the target country who understand the local legal system and who have practiced law or are very familiar with the law in that country. If you’re translating marketing material or an emotive communication, you need to determine if your readers expect Hochdeutsch, or national variant, or even a local regional or city variant, and choose a translation team accordingly. It’s even possible that you might want to translate into a traditional dialect for emotional impact if that’s what you’re after. In any case, your decision about whether to use Hochdeutsch, a national or local variety or a dialect will tell you which kind of translators you need. One alternative is to create a Standard German translation and have a local editor revise it to make sure it is appropriate for the local culture. Ask your translation service provider; they will be able to help.