Hello again and welcome to my second post in this series (you can find the first post here).  


The subject this time is literal translations.  What do I mean by literal translations? In my mind they can be split up into:


  • single words or phrases
  • whole clauses or sentences
  • entire texts


Sometimes a literal translation is perfectly fine – in simple cases it can even be unavoidable. But very often a literal translation may convey the correct meaning of the original text, but even so it feels wrong when you read it, while in other cases it makes the translation incorrect. Gengo has a guide on literal translations: see here. What I want to discuss here is some examples more specific to my own language pair.


There are too many words that should generally not be literally translated to cover in this post, so here are just a few very common examples:



A small word but, apart from in some local examples, “already” is not used nearly as often in English, and generally not the way it is used in German.

“Warst du schon in Amerika?”, literally translated as “Were you already in America?” sounds so much more natural translated as “Have you ever been to America?”

There are many more examples, but be aware that often “schon” can be entirely omitted from the translation, or translated as “ever” or “yet”.


Spaß – as part of a compound noun

You see this often in German. A word such as “Farhspaß” in marketing details for a car, or “Schwimmspaß” when referring to a trip to the pool. Ask yourself whether you would use “driving fun” or “driving enjoyment”, or “swimming fun”, in a sentence, or whether you would rephrase it to something different, and generally lengthier. I certainly would. “This is a fun car to drive” or “you can have an enjoyable time in the pool” – depending, of course on the context and the wording of the rest of the sentence – sounds much more natural.



This word has many translations into English, and “possibility” is in many cases the one that is least appropriate.  Alternative translations include “option”, “chance”, “opportunity”, “way” or “approach”. This is not a definitive list, by any means. If in doubt, consult a dictionary and read down the list of alternatives, then pick the one that fits best.


Be aware of what sounds natural in English, and translate accordingly, so if it comes to these examples, ask yourself what sounds right to you, not what the first option the dictionary gives you is. This also applies to longer chunks of text. You know, of course, not to follow German word order every time. But sometimes an entire sentence needs to be unravelled and reworded to make it sound English.


A simple example is the following:


“Was mir besonders gut gefällt, ist schnell erklärt.“


A literal translation of this would be along the lines of:


“What I particularly like is quickly explained.”


Although not incorrectly translated, it doesn’t read as if a native speaker has written it. A better translation might be:


“It’s easy to explain what I really like.”


I say “a better translation” because there are a number of other options, but this is the one that came off the top of my head.


Another example:


“Spricht mir sehr gut an.“


Literal translation (that may well also be incorrect):


“Addresses me very well:”


Suggested alternative:


“Appeals to me.”




“Der Zapfen öffnet sich auf Grund einer simplen wie genialen Strategie der Natur.“


Literal translation:


“Pine cones open up on the basis of a simple and ingenious strategy of nature.”


Suggested alternative:


“A pine cone opens up because nature has endowed it with a simple but ingenious strategy.”


If there are only isolated literal translations in the text, you may lose a few marks. If, however, the entire text is a literal translation, and it all reads poorly, then you are likely to get a low GoCheck score. So be aware of the dangers.


It doesn’t matter, either, whether you are dealing with a formal or informal text – in either case your aim, as always, is to produce a result that sounds as if it was written by a native speaker, and in an appropriate tone. Of course, with a more complex text, it may be difficult to think of a better way to phrase it. But I have a few suggestions: ask yourself how you would say/write the sentence or phrase if you were speaking or writing it from your own head; and if you can’t think of something appropriate now, get up and do something else for a few minutes and at the same time think about how to write this problem phrase. Or, if you have a long text to translate, skip the problem part and go back to it later, when you might well find the answer comes to you more easily. If time really is too short (and it shouldn’t be if you manage your time properly – perhaps the subject for a later post!), go back to my first suggestion and write what sound natural, taking care not to alter the meaning of the original.  


I have only skimmed over a subject that I could have written far more about here, but sadly I am already over my word limit. Please feel free to ask any questions, and also to let me know if you want to hear more on this subject later. Happy translating.



  • 1
    Jutta Atkinson

    I quite take your point about literal translations often not sounding natural in English and the improved renderings you supplied.
    Just one of the examples is a little 'off': "Spricht mir sehr gut an". That is actually incorrect German. It should be "Spricht mich sehr gut an." Of course it could have come from a social media post written by a non-native speaker. But including it as an example is not really helpful and may confuse people.
    Keep up the good work!

  • 1
    Sarah (DE>EN language specialist)

    Thank you for your comment, Jutta. I realise that the phrase I quoted was not perfect German, but where possible in these posts I take examples from real translations and I copied this one exactly. However, I take your point and in future I shall try, where appropriate, to point this out.

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