What the #$%& is CW?! A quick guide for written and corporate communication with and for Germans

Differences between Germany and the U.S. oftentimes cause confusion in the communication on both sides—I provide you with a quick guide to help avoid misunderstandings in your communication with and for Germans.

What the #$%& is CW?! Communication with and for Germans

On the website of a German company in the U.S., you see a job posting that you’re perfectly qualified for and very interested in. It’s now mid-December and the date of the post reads 4.12.2017. You assume that the job posting is from April 12, 2017—almost eight months ago—and decide not to apply as you believe the position is filled by now. Later you find out that the job was posted on December 4, 2017 – the date format on the website had been set up based on German standards.

The employees of a U.S. supplier face challenges in their email communication with the employees of a German manufacturer. The German project manager emailed some of the U.S. employees an overview with deliverables for the manufacturer’s project plan. The overview had been translated from German into English and, amongst others, includes the abbreviation “CW” combined with a number behind the individual deliverables. The employees in the U.S. were requested to follow up with the German project manager on the status of the deliverables on the respective due dates. A few months after the U.S. employees had received the overview, their supervisor was contacted by the German project manager with a complaint: most of the employees failed to send status updates at the time that the deliverables were due. It turned out that the employees hadn’t been aware of the due dates. “CW” in the overview stood for “calendar week,” a translation of the German word “Kalenderwoche,” which is commonly used in Germany (especially in business communications and in the corporate world) to specify the time frame of a given week.

In addition, the supervisor found out that some of the German employees were put off by the tone of the emails from their American counterparts who had taken the liberty to immediately address the Germans by first name. To add insult to injury, in their email threads, most U.S. employees only used a salutation and closing in their first email and went straight to business in the rest of their email communication.

Being aware of the differences of your own culture and that of the recipient helps avoid miscommunication. I’ve summarized some of the most important peculiarities of German and American written communication along with suggestions for how to handle differences.

Date format—Germans turn it around

While the typical date format in the U.S. is written in the order month, day, year, Germans use the format day, month, year. For example, April 12, 2017, would be written as 4/12/2017 (or 4-12-2017) in the U.S., while in Germany this would be 12.4.2017 or 12. April 2017. (While Americans most commonly use a forward slash or sometimes hyphens to separate month and day as well as day and year, Germans use periods.)

Other examples:
November 6, 2016, in American date format is 11/6/2016 (or 11-6-2016) and 6.11.2016 in German date format.
June 11, 2016, is 6/11/2016 in U.S.-American format and 11.6.2016 in German format.

The different formats can lead to a lot of confusion in the communication between Germans and Americans, especially if some employees in a German team or company are aware of and use the U.S.-American format in their communication with Americans while others use the German format.
To avoid confusion and misunderstandings, I suggest that in your international communication you spell out the month (or at least abbreviate it as in “Jan.,” Feb.,” “Oct.,” etc.) whenever you write a date. When you receive communication from outside the U.S. containing a date that is ambiguous, seek clarification and ask the sender to spell out the month when specifying dates in the future.

For international companies that use English as office language, we suggest you establish the standard of spelling out the month (or at least abbreviating it) company-wide.

“CW” demystified 

In Germany, the dates of a given week are oftentimes summarized as “calendar week” with the respective number of the week within a year. For example, “calendar week 30” (“Kalenderwoche 30” or abbreviated “KW 30”) in 2018 would be the week of July 23, 2018 (or July 23 through 29, 2018). Calendar week 44 (“Kalenderwoche 44” or “KW 44”) in 2018 is the week of October 29, 2018 (or October 29 through November 4, 2018). I’ve seen Germans use “calendar week” and abbreviate it with “CW” in their English communication (confusing the heck out of their American counterparts).

Calendar weeks can be easily googled. Printed calendars—wall, desk, pocket—are available that include calendar weeks. If you work in an international team, make sure that everyone is aware of what calendar weeks are.

For simplicity and to avoid misunderstandings, I recommend that instead of calendar weeks the respective dates are used in written and verbal communication: “The week of July 23,” “The week of October 29.”

Time format military style

Unlike the United States, where only the numbers 1 through 12 are commonly used to indicate time (followed by “a.m.” or “p.m.,”), Germans specify time with the numbers 1 through 24. In other words: Germans use military time.

For example, two o’clock in the night—“2 a.m.” in the U.S—is written as “2 Uhr” in Germany, whereas two o’clock in the afternoon—“2 p.m.” in the U.S.—would be specified as “14 Uhr” in Germany.

Minutes after an hour are separated from the hour by a colon both in the U.S. and Germany: “6:30 (Uhr or a.m. respectively); in German it’s not uncommon to put a period instead of the colon: “6.30 Uhr.”

If a time is on the hour such as five o’clock, six o’clock, etc., it’s perfectly acceptable to omit the zeros both in the German and American format: “5 Uhr,” “6 Uhr” or “5 a.m.,” “6 a.m.,” etc. If there is more than one time specification in a sentence with at least one time being on the hour and at least one followed by minutes, it’s best to add zeros after the time that’s on the hour for consistency: “From 8:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.” or “Von 8:00 Uhr bis 13:30 Uhr.”

Because the use of military time is uncommon in the U.S., I suggest that Germans and Americans use the U.S. time format in their communication—it’s an easy adjustment to make for Germans and avoids confusion.


Germany, unlike the U.S., has only one time zone: Central European (CET).

If your communication includes a time, for example in an invitation or on an agenda, then it’s advisable to specify the time based on the time zone relevant to the recipient. If your American colleague will be participating in a meeting at your office in Paris, then use and specify the Central European time zone but use the American format, for example “3 p.m. CET.” If you’re at an office in Tokyo and sending an invite to a teleconference that starts at 7 a.m. local time to an American customer who will dial in from Boston, then use Eastern (Standard) Time and the American time format: “5 p.m. EST.” It should suffice to include only one U.S. time zone if you’re sending communication to Americans located in different U.S. time zones. Americans are used to dealing with different time zones, and a person from California knows that 6 p.m. EST means 3 p.m. PST.

The time change from standard to daylight-saving time (or “winter time” to “summer time”) and vice versa in Germany typically occurs on different dates than in the U.S. As a result, the time difference between Central Europe and the respective time zones in the U.S. is an hour more or less than it normally is during this time. (An exception are, of course, the states Arizona and Hawaii as well as some U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico, which don’t change between standard and daylight-saving time.)

Units of measurement—the metric system rules

Unlike the U.S., where “customary units” are the common units of measurement, Germany uses the metric system. Dimensions or distances are specified in millimeters, centimeters, meters, and kilometers instead of in inches, feet, yards, or miles. Liquids aren’t measured in ounces, quarts, and gallons but rather in milliliters and liters.

A report about your recent factory expansion to 400,000 square feet on your website or in a press release will not knock too many socks off in Germany (or in the rest of Europe) as a square foot is not something most Europeans have come across. Thus, you will need to convert square feet into square meters for your communication with Germans.

And just like most Americans won’t be sure if 50 kilometers is a walk down the street or a bit of a drive, most Germans won’t have a feeling for how far 50 miles are. While for most Americans 80 degrees simply means tank top, shorts, and flip flops on a nice spring or summer day, this temperature is something a German only experiences in a sauna—because that’s how Celsius and Fahrenheit differ.

Therefore, if you use units of measurement in your communication with Germans, make sure you localize and use the metric system (at least offer the respective information in metric units in parenthesis behind the information in U.S. customary units for clarification).

Letter format—not all letters are created equal

German and American letters are structured differently.

A typical business letter in the U.S. will look something like this:

January 2, 2018 (Date)

Mary Smith (Sender’s name)
Account Manager (Sender’s title if applicable)
ABC Company (Sender’s company name if applicable)
123 Main St. (Sender’s street address)
Keller, TX 76244 (Sender’s city, state and zip code)
(Sender’s country if recipient’s address is in another country)

John Miller (Recipient’s name)
Senior Buyer (Recipient’s title if applicable)
XYZ Company (Recipient’s company if applicable)
456 Broadway (Recipient’s street address)
Tucson, AZ 85710 (Recipient’s city, state and zip code)
(Recipient’s country if other than the U.S.)

Your inquiry from 12/27/2017 (Subject line)

Dear John: (Salutation, typically followed by a colon in a formal letter)


Sincerely, (Closing, followed by a comma)
Sender’s signature

Mary Smith (Sender’s name)
Manager Customer Service (Sender’s title)

A typical letter in Germany is organized differently in various aspects:

ABC GmbH (Sender’s company if applicable)
Maria Schmidt (Sender’s name)
Account Manager (Sender’s title)
Hauptstr. 15 (Sender’s street address)
Xxxx Berlin (Sender’s zip code and city)
(Sender’s country if recipient’s address is in another country)
Berlin, 27.12.2017 (city and date, separated by a comma)

XYZ Unternehmen (Recipient’s company if applicable)
Johann Mueller (Recipient’s name)
Lead Buyer (Recipient’s title if applicable)
Markplatz 30 (Recipient’s street address)
Xxxx Neustadt (Recipient’s zip code and city)
(Recipient’s country if other than Germany)

Ihre Beschwerde vom 27.12.2017 (Subject line)

Sehr geehrter Herr Müller, (Salutation, followed by a comma)


Mit freundlichen Grüßen (closing)
Sender’s signature

Maria Schmidt (Sender’s name)
Sachbearbeiterin (Sender’s title if applicable)

Companies in both Germany and the U.S. typically have their individual corporate letterhead. On German letterheads, the sender’s address is oftentimes placed in the right upper corner, in one line in small font above the recipient’s name and address, and/or on the bottom of the page.

When composing a letter in the recipient’s language, I recommend you follow the letter format that is customary in the recipient’s country for consistency, at least as much as possible. If you’re using pre-printed corporate letterhead or a corporate letterhead template, then the sender’s information will already be filled in, of course.

If your international company has offices in other countries, I recommend that each site use the letter format that is typical of the country the site is in. An exception is the recipient’s address: for international recipients, use the address format of the recipient’s country. For example, if you send a letter from your American company in English to a recipient in Germany, you would organize the sender’s information in the U.S. format, the recipient’s information in the German format and the letter overall (date, subject line, etc.) in the U.S. format.

Emails—when in doubt, keep saluting

In emails, Germans, just like Americans, may use a formal salutation like in a letter (“Dear John,” “Dear Mrs. Smith” or, in German, “Lieber Hans,” or “Sehr geehrte Frau Schmidt,”) or they may use a more casual salutation (“Hello John,” “Good morning team” or, in German, “Hallo Hans,” “Guten Morgen in die Runde”), depending on the relationship with the recipient. In general, Germans are more formal in their business communication than Americans. In the last paragraph below, you’ll find some rules of thumb for the use of formal and informal address with Germans.

Unlike Americans, who typically use a salutation and closing only in their first email of an email thread, Germans oftentimes keep using a salutation and closing in each email within a thread. Some Germans understand that leaving out a salutation and closing after the first email is simply “the American way” of doing things (or even prefer doing it this way themselves), others may not be aware of this cultural difference and find it impolite.


In automatic replies to emails, both Germans and Americans state the date(s) of their absence and, if applicable, reachability during their absence as well as name and contact information of an alternate if applicable. If the reason for the absence is (extensive) sick leave, or maternity/paternity leave, Germans, unlike Americans, frequently offer this information. While in Germany it’s common to state these reasons in an out-of-the-office-reply, it’s against the law for an employer in the U.S. to request that employees offer this information. If the employees at the German office or headquarters include such reasons for their absence in an automatic email reply, the American employees of the company in the U.S. can’t be requested to do the same.

To avoid a misunderstanding or confusion in any international recipients of your automatic email response, I recommend you spell out the month when writing dates (e.g., “I’ll be out of the office from January 1 through January 5, 2018, with limited access to my emails and cell phone.”)

How to address a German

In general, Germans are (a lot) more formal in their communication and address each other with “Sie” (instead of “Du”) and their last name if they don’t know each other well. As they get to know each other, they may, sooner or later, switch to the informal address of “Du” in combination with the first name and, at the same time, become more casual in their emails. Nowadays, it is quite common for coworkers even of different ages to switch to the informal address of “Du” and the first name quite quickly, whereas Germans from my parents’ generation may have addressed people in a work setting such as coworkers—and most definitely supervisors—clients, or employees of a supplier with the formal “Sie,” even after knowing and working with them for years or decades. However, even nowadays it is, in most companies, unthinkable to address “high-ranking” employees, such as executives, with “Du” and their first name.

Academic titles such as “Doctor” or “Professor” definitely need to be honored in Germany: address the other person by their title and last name.

Many German employees of international companies are aware that different cultures do things differently. Those who deal with counterparts, customers, suppliers, etc. in the U.S. learn that Americans are more casual and that addressing someone by their first name and using a casual tone in written and verbal communication (right off the bat) is not a sign of disrespect but simply “the American way.” If you want to be on the safe side or if you’re communicating with a “high-ranking” employee or with a client, address him by last name. If you speak German, then address the other person with “Sie” and by last name, unless she introduces herself to you only with her first name. And unless you’re familiar with the somewhat intricate rules of who’s in the position to offer switching to “Du” and a first-name-basis to the other one, keep it at “Sie” and the last name until the other person suggests to move to “Du” (which may or may not happen).

In informal settings outside of the workplace, for example when making a new acquaintance at a bar or at a friend’s party, it’s nowadays common to introduce oneself by first name and use “Du” right away.

In the U.S., oftentimes only the first name is displayed on the name tags of employees, say, in a store, at a counter, or at a trade show as well as on the name tags of participants in a conference or workshop. In Germany, name tags display the person’s first and last name or the salutation “Mrs.” or “Mr.” (“Frau” or “Herr”) or the title (“Dr.” or “Prof.”) along with the last name. It may be a bit tricky when Germans and Americans work together, for example, at a trade show or participate in a conference together. Using the first and last name is a good compromise.

H&M—blatant racism or a crass lack of (inter)cultural competence?

H&M—blatant racism or a crass lack of (inter)cultural competence?

Clothing retailer H&M on January 10, 2018, issued an official statement apologizing for the image of a black child wearing a hoody with the wording “Coolest Monkey In The Jungle” emblazoned on it next to a white child wearing a hoody with the wording “Survival Expert.” The picture had appeared a few days prior in the UK online shop of the company and has caused outrage in the public and in the media. The Sweden-based international company insists that the racist tone of its latest ad was completely unintentional.

It was “unintentional.” Every time.

What makes this ad even more concerning is the fact that this isn’t the first time the company has been criticized for inappropriate, racially insensitive design, marketing, and communication: In 2013, H&M pulled feathered headdresses from the shelves of its Canadian stores after complaints that the accessories were mocking aboriginal culture. Headdresses are traditionally worn by Native American chiefs and are a sign of honor and respect rather than a mundane piece of clothing. “Of course we never want to offend anyone or come off as insensitive,” a company spokesperson said. (The previous year, fashion retailer Urban Outfitters and lingerie retailer Victoria’s Secret both had sparked controversy for using Native American symbols and garment in their fashion lines.)

And when H&M’s first store opened in South Africa in 2015, a customer complained on Twitter about the fact that the store’s promotional images featured exclusively white models. Part of H&M’s response read, ”[…] it is essential for us to convey a positive image. We want our marketing to show our fashion in an inspiring way, to convey a positive feeling.” When it received backlash for its response suggesting that it chose white models because they convey a positive image and a positive feeling, the company issued the following statement: “In no way does H&M state that positivity is linked to an ethnic group.” And said—does this sound familiar?—that any offense this caused was unintentional.

Was it cheaper and easier than the cost of change?

So how many more times, we may wonder, will H&M have to apologize for “unintentional cultural insensitivity”? (And how many more times will it get a chance to apologize?) Problems rarely go away on their own. The same actions will typically bring the same results. A different or improved outcome requires a change in action. So what has caused these repeated offenses and why has H&M apparently not made any changes?

In its statement, H&M says, among other things, that it actively promotes diversity: “[…] we feel that we have made real progress over the years in playing our part in promoting diversity and inclusion.” H&M’s ads have, in fact, regularly featured models of different races and ethnicities over the years. While many European companies are still lagging behind U.S. brands when it comes to diversity in marketing, I presented H&M as a positive example to a German client in my consultation about diversity in international advertising in the past.

People who aren’t the target of racial discrimination may indeed not realize how prevalent racism still is and what it means for those affected by it. Maybe the person who decided to put the black model in the “monkey sweater” for the photo shoot was simply unaware of the connotation and the message this could send. Children (of all colors) are sometimes referred to by their parents as “monkey” in a playful or endearing way and, as Edward Adoo, a black broadcaster from the UK, puts it in his article in the Independent, “context is powerful and important.” And maybe that is why the person who designed the sweater thought nothing of it. However, the fact is that the word “monkey” has been used as a racial slur for a long time and has caused much pain as such. Just like countless claims and statements about the supremacy of the white race (the “experts” among the races). The company has stated in the past that its “[…] marketing policy, campaign productions and work is something we constantly discuss internally and with creative professionals.” But measures to promote (inter)cultural awareness and sensitivity in the process of designing clothes, creating marketing campaigns, before publishing ads, or when communicating in social media were apparently not in place. The first public controversy in 2013 was a great opportunity to identify the need for such measures and to implement them. But H&M got off easy back then with no major pressure to make a change. It got off relatively easy again in 2015. Will the company be forced to look for the root cause of the recurring problem and make changes now that, after the recent backlash, its stocks dropped and numerous people including celebrities in several countries have publicly called for H&M’s boycott?

It seems that (inter)cultural awareness hasn’t been given the attention it deserves. The focus for companies is on increasing sales, the development and design of products, the efficiency of production, improving customer service, and a qualified staff. After all, these are the aspects that contribute to continuously increasing profits (or, at a minimum, to the company’s survival). In the process, it’s good and nice to be culturally sensitive and not offend anyone; maybe some intercultural training for expats can be thrown in as a benefit. But really, compared to most other aspects it’s not that important. Except that we have just seen another example of how this type of prioritization can interfere with some or all the other focal points: how much will sales decrease for H&M and lost profits amount to? What will the added cost for PR crisis management be? Will a lack of enthusiasm for the brand halt its development in new markets and will it deter qualified job candidates? Does such a financial impact outweigh the cost of continuous intercultural training along with the creation of an environment and culture that foster cultural awareness?

“Re-civilize yourself—white is purity”: the corporate chorus

A lack of (inter)cultural competence appears to be quite prevalent in the corporate world: the soap brand Dove caused an outcry in October 2017 after airing a commercial that showed a black woman taking off her brown shirt and turning into a white woman with a white shirt. Both the company and the black model featured in the commercial maintain that the commercial’s real intention—conveying that Dove is for women of all colors and sizes—was misrepresented when the originally much longer commercial was cut down to three seconds. And, just like H&M, Dove has indeed been using a lot of imagery and wording promoting diversity. But using soap to wash people of color “clean,” turning them into an “improved” version of themselves—a white person—was the story shown in numerous—clearly and extremely racist—soap ads and cartoons in the last century. And Dove had already received backlash for an ad for similar reasons in 2011.


German cosmetics brand Nivea experienced a PR nightmare after publishing an ad that targeted the Middle Eastern market with the slogan “White Is Purity” on Facebook. After much protest from people and praise from white supremacists, Nivea removed the ad and issued an apology. In 2011, an ad for “Nivea Men” showed a clean-shaven black man holding a head with an Afro—apparently his former self—along with the slogan: “Re-civilize Yourself.”


The theme is always the same: companies publish racially insensitive, offensive marketing, receive backlash, apologize stating the racism was unintentional, recover, repeat.

The solution lies in the boardroom, not in the changing room

How much bad publicity and how much in lost profits does it take for companies to realize that having and applying cultural competence in everyday business—especially in marketing and communication—needs to be a priority?

Writer and activist Michaela Angela Davis hit the nail on the head: “When it comes to advertising, it’s not enough to just have a black woman in the room. She has to be in the boardroom—she can’t just be in the changing room.” When all 11 board members, the CEO, and six out of the seven people featured as “our leaders” on the website of a big international company—H&M—are white with experience living and working in a few European countries and the U.S., then that doesn’t do the cultural diversity and complexity of the world justice. (The board of directors at Beiersdorf, the parent company of Nivea, shows a similar make-up and background, while the board of Unilever, Dove’s parent company, is significantly more diverse).

The number and complexity of cultural differences and experiences as well as the potential for problems arising from them are widely underestimated. At the same time, I have found that oftentimes people—especially those that have traveled to, done business with, or even lived in other countries for a limited period of time—tend to overestimate their knowledge about other cultures (and languages).

In the age of a highly mobile society, the Internet, and social media, marketing and communication are never limited to one market and to one target group. When your actions are offensive to one particular group of people, it will reach this group (quickly), even when you or your target group are on the opposite side of the globe. Cultural competence isn’t just a nice-to-have in this day and age, but rather a priority. Hiring decision-makers with diverse backgrounds and including them in development, review, and approval processes is key. Continuous intercultural training at least for the decision-makers—ideally for all staff—in a company is just as important, with a top-down approach, starting with the company’s top executives.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, or short “The King Center,” said it best in its tweet on January 7, 2018: “Every company should invest in training that encompasses cultural competency and sensitivity. It is absolutely necessary.”


Why your translator and your communications specialist need to know the culture of your target group

Imagine you’re selling a product via your online shop. Sales figures as well as customer reviews and media articles attest to the popularity of your product. With this success you decide to offer your product on the German market. After overcoming all hurdles such as local safety and customs requirements, you market your product online to your German target audience. Unfortunately, the success in the domestic market is not replicated abroad although your product meets the needs of your target group overseas. You find out after the fact that the term which your product was marketed under online and in press releases was an inadequate translation from English into German. You (or your PR agency) had enlisted a translation firm in the U.S. with the translation of your marketing texts and press releases. Although all German texts were correct in spelling, punctuation, and grammar, the translator did obviously not have in-depth knowledge of the German culture and market, including your target group and the products of your German competitors who know to use the correct and common terms in the marketing of their products.

There are numerous examples for the incorrect use of words or unfortunate product names in foreign markets. A popular example is the Chevy Nova, which General Motors brought to the Latin American market with the same name, much to the amusement of many Spanish native speakers: “no va” means “doesn’t go” in Spanish. Or the American company Clairol, which brought its “Mist Stick” to the German market, only to find out—after the fact—that in German this translates as “manure stick.”

When it doesn’t quite sound right, it’s not professional

Even more prevalent—even though less grave than incorrect terms or names for products—are translations from one language into another that may be understandable but not authentic in the target language.

For example, a US-American oil and gas company is encouraging job candidates on its German website to “discover opportunities to take your career to a new level”: “Entdecken Sie Ihre Chancen, Ihre Karriere auf eine neue Ebene zu bringen.” And you’ll find the company’s contact information under the question “How can we help you?” – “Wie können wir Ihnen helfen?” A comparison with the company’s American website confirms that the German wording is a close translation of the original English wording. While correct and understandable, in authentic German you don’t take your career to a new level. You advance it. The American marketing firm Epsilon got it right on its German website: “Bringen Sie Ihre Karriere voran”—“Advance your career.”

Wait, what?! Levi’s says to live naked?

Advertising products with English slogans or taglines has been a popular practice by American and even by some German companies. However, a 2016 study of the German naming agency Endmark revealed that 64 percent of Germans don’t understand English slogans or taglines. For example, most Germans who were asked to explain the YouTube slogan “Broadcast Yourself” came up with translations such as “make your own bread box” or “feed yourself.” The Levi’s slogan “live unbuttoned” was interpreted by Germans as encouragement to “live without buttons,” “live on a button,” or “live naked.” And the tagline “Come in and find out” by the German beauty retailer Douglas was thought to tell customers to “come in, then find your way back out.”

Hence, in marketing for a foreign market, localization is key: the foreign language text offers at least the same essential information as the English text but is reworded to sound authentic in the local market. This ensures it is on par with the marketing of local competitors and it speaks to the local target audience. Slogans or taglines may need to be translated so that locals understand them.

Adapting texts correctly and effectively for a target group abroad requires in-depth and current knowledge of the respective culture as well practice in content or copy writing.

Not localizing may have legal consequences

However, not only marketing requires localization. I was enlisted by one of my clients—a company with headquarters in Germany—to edit a job posting that had been translated from German into English by a translator in Germany. The client was looking to fill a position at its U.S. office, and the posting was going to be published in some media in the U.S. The text stated at the end (in correct English) that applicants with disabilities, if equally qualified, would be given preferential consideration. While this practice and statement is legal in Germany, it is against the law in the U.S. When I brought this to my client’s attention, he decided to leave out the respective sentence in the job posting. Publishing the ad with this statement could have had legal implications or resulted in bad publicity (or both). The German translator was very likely either not aware of the legal differences between Germany and the U.S. or translated the sentence because (s)he was tasked with a translation, not a localization.

By the same token, if a job posting is translated into German from another language for the German market, it is equally important to be familiar with German conventions and to include such a sentence if doing so is beneficial or, let alone, the norm.

It comes to show that in areas other than marketing simply translating texts may not suffice. Instead, a skilled localization may be necessary.

Why sometimes even (simple) emails shouldn’t be translated (but rather localized)

Corporate communications are designed to reach individuals or organizations relevant to a business—customers and prospects, suppliers, donors, employees, job candidates, industry organizations, and the community. Consequently, they should to be tailored to each purpose and recipient. In the example of a German company, an annual customer satisfaction survey was emailed via link in German to its German customers and in English to numerous international customers, including those in the U.S. The survey was introduced by an email letter, asking that the recipients participate in the survey. The original text had been composed in German, then translated into English by one of the company’s employees. The email explained that based on the responses in the survey, the client was going to improve its products and services for its customers. It went on to explain in detail that the survey was conducted and evaluated by an external service provider, that the responses would be anonymous, not allowing the client to trace them back to the individual and explaining the method used to analyze and evaluate the responses.

My client was faced with the challenge of low participation in the survey in previous years, especially by its international customers. I recommended that the email text be shortened at least for the client’s American customers. While the details included were certainly appropriate for German recipients, managers and executives in the U.S. typically like it “short and sweet.” With all the work to be completed in a day and deadlines to be met, tasks need to be prioritized with no room for detailed explanations about the methods of analysis of a customer survey. Instead, the focus should be on a concise and effective message explaining the benefit for customers of participating in the survey. The key question for the American recipient is, “Is this worth my time and effort?” With the client’s permission, I localized the email text for American customers, replacing details about the anonymity and analysis of the survey with a brief statement that the survey was anonymous and conducted by an external provider. The contact information of one of the client’s employees was provided for questions or more information about the survey.

Vice versa, similar communication created for and in the U.S. would need to be localized for foreign markets. In the example of my client’s annual customer satisfaction survey, providing information about how the responses are collected, analyzed, and kept anonymous, conveys professionalism, credibility, and trustworthiness to Germans and people from some other cultures. By comparison, Germans oftentimes include and exchange more information and details in communication (from the get-go)—including in presentations and meetings—than Americans do.

Find translators who know how to localize and transcreate—and give them permission to do so

In summary, communication needs to be tailored to the different conventions and cultures in other countries, whether it is for marketing, product descriptions or names, job postings, or for corporate communication. With this awareness, translators, writers, or communication specialists should be enlisted who don’t only master the target language but who also possess in-depth and current knowledge of the respective culture.

The linguist should then be given express permission to be as creative as necessary with the communication, producing text that is perfectly appropriate for the target audience and to not simply translate but to localize or transcreate if and where necessary.