As in all writing, shorter is better, even in translation. Many will not believe all the gunk you can clear out of the average German source text. The red thread in all these tips is: write it shorter!
I. Translate nominal to verbal style
- German often uses nominalization to save space. Official English language also has this tendency, but there’s no law anywhere forcing you to write that way. Yes, you can claim your poor translation is saying exactly what the source says in the same language, but then you’re no better than Google Translate. English has tons of handy shortcuts reserved for the written language, use them.
- SOURCE: Die Eröffnung der Verhandlungen zwischen den Gesandten und den Mitgliedsstaaten fand statt.
- GOOD: The negotiations between envoys and member states opened.
- BAD: The opening of the negotiations of the representatives with the member states took place.
II. Use fitting metaphores
Watch out for metaphores in the source text. Make sure your metaphores make sense in English, no matter what the source says. Branches don’t go “hand in hand,” even if the German author thinks so.
- SOURCE: Meistens gehen diese Geschäftszweige Hand in Hand…
- GOOD: These business branches often intertwine…
- BAD: These business branches usually go hand in hand…
III. Always write subject-verb-object (SVO)
- A common theory states that there are analytic and synthetic languages. Analytic languages use sentence order to show relationships between words, while synthetic ones rely more on inflection. As a synthetic language like German is not as strict on word order. Sentences can start with the verb or with the object.
“Natural” English sentences always need to start with the subject, followed by verb and object.
You might have noticed in your cover letters that you start every sentence with “I”. That’s no stylistic fault, it’s a grammatical must.
Written German also tends to drop the subject. Whenever you have a hard time translating a German sentence, look if it’s suffering from a hidden subject.
- SOURCE: Zugegeben wurde, dass im Laufe der Ermittlung seitens der Regierung Fehler gemacht wurden.
- GOOD: The government admitted mistakes during the investigation.
- BAD: It was admitted that in the course of the investigation mistakes were made by the government.
- WRONG: Admitted was that in the course of the investigation mistakes on the side of the government were made.
IV. Use news style
German has a tendency to use official language in news writing. English has “news style,” which relies on space-saving words that pack heavy imagery and don’t occur in normal language: “Sticks Nix Hix Pix,” ban, curb, slash, cut, drop a bill, sack a minister, to axe spending (see Headlinese). Most of these short words are of Anglo-Saxon origin as opposed to Romance, and they are not considered colloquialisms.
V. Ditch pronouns & reference words
An old tech writing rule says never to use pronouns. Watch out especially for dangling pronouns. They’re more common in German than in English. Because German sentences are so complex, they often use reference words to keep a semblance of cohesion. For example, “dabei” – which has no English equivalent (don’t believe the dictionary).
- SOURCE: Diese wird von vielen EU-Staaten mitgetragen, dabei ist sie nicht unumstritten.
- GOOD: Although many EU states support this initiative, it remains controversial.
- BAD: This is supported by many EU states, while it is not without controversy.