Which type of communication should be translated?
Apart from books, a translation is appropriate for official documents such as birth and marriage certificates, report cards, certifications, etc. It may also be appropriate for texts that strictly convey information such as contracts; a list of ingredients; police, scientific, and news reports; technical and user manuals; and directions. Whether or not a translation is the best choice really depends on the context and the purpose of the communication.
When does a translation not do?
Because different cultures use different approaches to communicate information, in many cases a text that was translated from another language will give away more or less quickly that it is a translation rather than an original text—no matter how good the translation.
When you want to drive a message home for someone, then speak the language they’re at home in.
Take some of the people in your life: We all have this friend who explains everything at length, leaving out no detail, describing people, things, and events vividly and emotionally. We also have that other friend who’s quite the opposite—cut-and-dry, sticking to the bare essentials when conveying any type of information. If you asked both friends to give a written description of an event they both witnessed yesterday, you would probably be able to guess quite quickly who gave which description. It’s oftentimes the same when people from different cultures communicate.
By the same token, if you tried to convince both friends to buy a specific product, you would want to offer detailed information and use wording and a tone that elicit excitement with your one friend; and give a more factual, rational, and concise explanation to the other in order to get through to each one of them.
When your communication aims at establishing or maintaining a connection with people from another culture—for example correspondence with customers or an announcement to your employees—or when it indirectly requires such a connection—for example during a training, workshop, or speech—the content will probably need to be adapted to that culture. This is true especially if the communication is designed to elicit an emotional response—for example ads, commercials, sales presentations, or a call for donations—or will likely bring about emotions, such as an announcement to employees about bonus pays, company relocation, or layoffs; a product recall to consumers; or an official statement that a particular product is discontinued.
Typical linguistic differences between German and English include a more frequent use of the passive voice, nominal style, the impersonal pronouns “one” or “you” (“man” in German) and, in general, longer sentences in German, to name but a few.
Some of the cultural differences between Germans and Americans show in a communication style that in German is—oftentimes and depending on the context—wordier, more formal, more direct, more authoritative, and more factual with less emotional statements than communication in American English. The American principle of “keep it simple” doesn’t usually apply to German communication. In American English, if a word doesn’t change or add to the meaning of a sentence, then you should probably leave it out when composing a text. If you apply this principle to your German text, it will sound to a German like something a second grader wrote.
Thus, for some types of communication such as presentations, speeches, correspondence with customers and business partners, written or verbal announcements to employees or colleagues, marketing texts, and product descriptions, you will probably need to adjust your communication style to the German culture to be effective. Simply translating your communication from English into German won’t do or you run the risk to come across unprofessional, disrespectful, incompetent, or inappropriate.
How do I know if a translation is the best choice?
A qualified translator or communications professional who knows both cultures—that of the source language and that of the target language—in depth can assess if your content should be translated, localized, or transcreated.