Hello again and welcome to part 13 of this series. To look at my last article, click here.


One issue I frequently come across is confusion between this and that. While it is mostly pretty clear that when it comes to the location of physical items this refers to an item which is close to the speaker and that to an item that is further away, for example:


the mug sitting on the table in front of me is this mug, while the mug on the other side of the table is that mug,


there is also a difference between this and that in cases that relate to proximity in time etc. as well as when referring to a sentence that precedes the current one, such as in this translation from the German, here:


Be it land, air or sea: As a specialist department of an international logistics group, we know the transport processes inside out. That's why we can provide our customers with competent, needs-based advice…


In this (!) case the second sentence explains that the reasons given in the first sentence are why the company is the right one to meet the customer’s needs, and should read:


This is why we can provide our customers with skilled, needs-based advice…


(My other comment on this sentence was on the use of the word competent, which is often a false friend: the German word Kompetent has a much stronger meaning than the English: if someone is competent they are perfectly capable of doing the job, but may not be the best at doing it, which is what the German Kompetent says they are. A more appropriate word to use here would be skilled or expert.)


My message in this case is that, when a sentence or clause follows on in explanation/clarification of the previous one, use this in every case. (Read further in this article and note that I use this quite a number of times to refer to what I have written before.)


Something else that crops up from time to time is the translation of und and oder. It may look straightforward: und is and, and oder is or. But not always. There are times when the German and English usages are transposed. This tends to be when there is a list, such as the one contained in this sentence:


German: Das breit gefächerte Spektrum an Arbeiten reicht vom [Produkt 1] & [Produkt 2] über [Produkt 3] und [Produkt 4] bis hin zu [Produkt 5] und umfasst nicht nur Aufträge für internationale Kunden, wie z.B. [Kundenname], [Kundenname] oder [Kundenname], sondern auch eigene, in limitierter Auflage produzierte Objekte.


This was translated as:


English: The broad spectrum of work ranges from [product 1] and [product 2] to [product 3], [product 4] and [product 5], and includes not only orders for international clients such as [customer name], [customer name] or [customer name], but also their own limited edition items.


Because all these names relate to the company’s actual customers, in English it is correct to use and instead of or. If this seems unclear, try rephrasing it:


The company’s customers include [customer name], [customer name] and [customer name].


From which it is obvious that, in English, or would be incorrect.


This also works the other way around, when the German text might use und while in English or would be the right option. When the text refers to a choice between alternatives, use or, even if the German text uses und.


Which leads me onto the topic of times when you need to decide for yourself whether the original should be directly translated, along with that of identifying errors in the original.


As you are no doubt well aware, translation is not just about taking a string of German words and replacing them with the English ones. You need to know which words to use in context, the order in which the words need to go in the target language, and how to use punctuation correctly – as a very minimum; there is obviously a lot more to it than that. So, in addition to understanding why you should pick, for instance, skilled as opposed to competent, or this instead of that in your translation, you need to recognise when the original text is badly written and/or contains typos. When, for example, a text reads:


German: Sie Sache mit den kleinen Steinfiguren ganz am Anfang,


do not translate it as:


English: You thing with the little stone figures at the very beginning,


because it should be obvious that this does not make sense. It should take very little working out, in this case, to realise that Sie should have read Die, and the translation should be:


The thing with the little stone figures at the very beginning.


This is, of course, a very simple example and the intended meaning is, or should be, clear. There are, naturally, cases where the original doesn’t make sense and it is not easy to work out, or make a guess at, what the meaning should be. In this case you have two options: put [untranslatable] in place of the word you cannot translate, or make your best guess. But, in both cases, leave a note for the customer. If you do this, it gives the customer the message that you have done your best and they can either figure it out for themselves or come back to you with the correct wording for you to translate. In addition, I will not mark the incorrect or untranslated text as a severe error! The end result is that everyone will be happy.


I have mentioned the use of machine translation before – see here. One big issue with using MT is that errors such as that in my example do not, as a rule, get picked up. Which is why, if you do use MT, you need to be able to check the result and notice when it is wrong before editing it properly. MT may have improved over the years, but it is still performed by a machine which does not think the way a human brain does, and cannot always recognise a typo for what it is. Your job is to think, and to produce a human translation, finding the solution to any problems in the original wherever humanly possible. On no account should you ever simply feed the text into MT, copy over the translation it produces and then hit the submit button. If you use MT as a tool, you need to know how to do the job of translation in the first place in order to know whether the tool is doing its job properly.


On which note I shall sign off. I look forward to your feedback and being able to discuss your questions and comments again.


  • 1
    Yasemin Erdem

    Hello Sarah, many thanks for all your articles. I am a Gengo translator for EN-DE since over a decade and just recently qualified for DE-EN. Your tips are very helpful! :) Thanks a lot, I have read them all.

  • 1
    Sarah (DE>EN language specialist)

    Thank you for your kind comments, Yasemin. I hope my articles continue to be helpful - and never be afraid to comment, or even to challenge me on something I have said!

    I wish you every success translating into English.

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