Blog by Tamara: Translating corona vocabulary

26 May 2020

Translating from Dutch to German: is it easy because the languages are very similar? Our in-house translator Tamara shares her experiences and concludes the opposite. The new corona vocabulary makes it even more interesting. Here’s what she writes about it.

Of course, Dutch and German are very similar. After all, they are both Germanic languages. However, German is a very complex language. Starting off with the ever-so-loved German cases, which continuously pose a challenge. In Dutch, it is easy to keep enumerations short and sweet, because as far as articles go, it only differentiates between ‘de’ and ‘het’ (both ‘the’ in English). In German, you have to make a choice between ‘die’ (feminine), ‘der’ (masculine), ‘das’ (neuter) and depending on the corresponding preposition, verb or constituent you have to apply the right case. German sounds fun, right? Definitely!

Du or Sie?

The formality of addressing others is a notorious subject of discussion. In Dutch there are two ways of saying ‘you’: ‘u’ (formal) and ‘je/jij’ (informal). The Dutch are increasingly using the informal way of addressing others. This is also changing in the German culture, but addressing someone with ‘du’ in writing is still out of the question in most cases. Therefore, the Germans prefer to use ‘Sie’. Whether to choose the formal or informal way of addressing others is a question we regularly pose to our clients.

Addressing men and women

Another – probably less known – translation issue is addressing both men and women. Let me give you an example: a company is writing a letter addressed to all employees. In Dutch you would start with the equivalent of ‘Dear employees’ or ‘Dear colleagues’, which allows you to address all employees. The German language doesn’t have such a simple solution. You would have to address men and women separately, e.g. ‘Liebe Mitarbeiterinnen und Mitarbeiter’ or ‘Liebe Kolleginnen und Kollegen’. And then I’m not even mentioning the choice between ‘Liebe’ (if you know someone well) or ‘Sehr geehrte’ (formal). When you address a group in the male form, it might suggest the group only consists of men. Some nuance is required; this convention is also changing in Germany. When handing in a translation that contains such issues, I prefer to give the client multiple options.

Corona vocabulary

This corona era brings whole new translation issues for Dutch and German. For example, in Dutch we write about ‘huishoudens die afstand moeten houden (households that need to maintain a distance)’. In German, this is highly unusual, because you would need to add a personification. This creates longer sentences in German, because just for the word ‘households’ you would need 4 words: ‘Personen aus verschiedenen Haushalten’. As mentioned before, short and sweet is not always possible. A great example of this is something we have heard a lot in the past few weeks: ‘vital professions’. In Dutch this is referred to as ‘vitale beroepen’. German doesn’t have such an alternative. Vital professions are ‘systemrelevante Berufe’. Or how about ‘Schutzmaterialmangel’? Yes, this 20-letter word is in fact (since recently) an existing noun. If you would need to translate this from German to Dutch, you would need to describe it. It literally means: a shortage of protective gear. It just goes to show that translation truly is a profession.

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