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Word for word? Absurd!

Ian McMaster ist Chefredakteur von Business Spotlight
Spontanes Springen vom Deutschen ins Englische gehört in fast allen Jobs zum Tagesgeschäft. Ian McMaster warnt vor den häufigsten Übersetzungsfallen.
For most German-speaking businesspeople translation simply means mentally turning a German comment into an English one - for example, on the telephone or during small talk, meetings or negotiations. How-ever, translating word for word will often lead to mistakes and confusion.

Look at the following 10 German sentences and translate them into English:

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1. Ich habe einen sehr netten neuen Chef.
2. Wir müssen nicht heute unterschreiben.
3. Der Mittelstand ist sehr wichtig für die deutsche Wirtschaft.
4. Mein Vater ist Polizeibeamter.
5. Meine sehr geehrten Damen und Herren ...
6. Unsere Firma hat gestern 20 Leute entlassen.
7. Ich bin Sachbearbeiterin in der Anzeigenabteilung bei Volkswagen.
8. Wir bitten um Ihr Verständnis.
9. Wir bekommen jeden Tag viele Beschwerden.
10. Mein Chef will, dass ich an diesem Projekt arbeite

These sentences illus-trate some of the most common problems when translating:

1. False friends_Some German words look like English words but do not have the same meaning. In (1), Chef means "boss", not "chef" (Koch). In (2), müssen nicht means "don't have to", not "must not" (dürfen nicht). In (9), bekommen means "to get" and not "to become" (werden).

2. Grammar problems_Grammar is an-other source of difficulty. For example, in (6), the simple past should be used in English because the event happened yesterday: "Our firm sacked/fired 20 people." It would be wrong to use the present perfect ("my firm has sacked"). Another typical grammar problem concerns sentences with will, dass such as (10). In English, it is wrong to say "My boss wants that I ...". Instead, you should say: "My boss wants me to ..."

3. Word order_Another area that causes difficulty is word order. In English, it is safest to follow the pattern "subject-verb-object-time". For example, sentence (2) becomes "We don't have to sign today"; sentence (6) becomes "Our firm sacked 20 people yesterday"; and sentence (9) becomes "We are getting/receiving lots of complaints every day".

4. Standard phrases_For some standard German phrases, you need to know the equivalent standard English phrase, which may look very different. Sentence (5) would typically be used when addressing a group of people, for example when making a speech or giving a presentation. In English, one would simply say "Ladies and gentlemen". At the start of a letter, Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren is usually trans-lat-ed as "Dear Sir or Madam". Sentence (8) is another standard phrase, often found in letters or heard on public transport when there are delays. The English equivalent is usually "We apologize for any inconvenience this has caused you".

5. Difficult translations_There is a group of German words that are difficult to translate because there is no real English equivalent. For example, in (3), Mittelstand is a peculiarly German term, referring to relatively small independent businesses. The normal translation into English is "small and medium sized enterprises" (SMEs), although the financial media also sometimes use "Mittelstand" when writing about Germany. Another difficult term is Beamter, which is often translated as either "public official" or "civil servant", even though neither of these terms quite capture the full meaning of a German Beamter. In (4), however, Polizeibeamter would be best translated simply as "police officer". Finally, in (7), Sachbearbeiterin has to be translated by describing the area you work in and/or what you do. In this case, you could say: "I work as an advertising assist-ant". In other cases, you might say "I process claims at an insurance company" or "I work in the marketing department of a publishing company".

Here are possible translations of the 10 sentences:

1. I have a very nice new boss.
2. We don't have to sign today.
3. Germany's small and medium sized enterprises/firms are very important to the economy.
4. My father is a police officer.
5. Ladies and gentlemen ...
6. Our firm sacked/fired 20 people yesterday.
7. I work at Volkswagen as an advertising assistant.
8. We apologize for any inconvenience this has caused you.
9. We are getting/receiving lots of complaints every day.
10. My boss wants me to work on this project.
Dieser Artikel ist erschienen am 25.09.2003