Translation: Procedure

Step 1: Analyze the text

  • If it’s not an exam, familiarize yourself with all the relevant context – the author’s background, the topic, the genre, the period in which the text was written...!
  • Sometimes, glossaries with technical terms are also available. There may be a specific code or language regime you’ll have to use.
  • If you’re allowed to do so, get a bilingual dictionary. If the translation paper is for homework, you may use online translation tools as long as this is acceptable.
  • First, read the text as a whole to get the overall message.
  • To check whether you got the message, briefly summarize the text.
  • Look at all the additional information provided – author, publication date, medium, genre, ...!
  • In some cases, you’ll find suggestions for words you may not know. Use them!
  • To get ready for translation, know your audience: Who will read your translation? You will have to adjust to the expectations and reading habits of your target group, and also the regional varieties of the target language (Canadian French, Australian English, Austrian German...).
  • Divide the text into sections to translate the text section by section.
  • Mark all the words you need to look up.
  • Highlight all the difficult passages – watch out for differences in tense, false friends, idioms, proverbs, dialect, puns, word order, figures of speech and imagery.

Step 2: Rough translation

  • Look up the words you don’t know. Choose carefully by checking the context and the information provided by your dictionary.
  • Translate the text section by section, sentence by sentence. If the sentences are complex, split them up into smaller units. Use appropriate words and a similar style.
  • If necessary, analyze the grammatical structures in a problem sentence.
  • Beware of grammatical mistakes and logical fallacies in the original. Admittedly, mistakes in the original are not very common – but it does happen.

Step 3: Revise your translation

  • Check your translation sentence by sentence. Make sure your version is as close to the original as you can get.
  • Watch out for connections between the sentences in your translation.
  • Read your translation as if it was a text in your native tongue. Whenever it sounds like a translation, you may have to adapt it. Reading t it aloud will help you to detect even more translation problems.
  • Check for spelling mistakes, punctuation problems and grammar failures.

Translation: A Few Hints

  • Some things may simply not exist in the target language – there is no such thing as “Kehrwoche”. You will have to find an equivalent or describe it so that the reader knows what it actually is.
  • Don’t expect the average reader to be familiar with the history or politics in your home country – if permissible, short explanations in your footnotes, in brackets or commas might help: “Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, said that…”.
  • Some things are different in the U.S. – so it might not be enough to look them up in a dictionary. Use Google Images (or any other search engine) to find out whether the thing behind the American word is similar to thing you’re talking about.
  • When you look for a single word and get a long number of results, there are at least three ways how you can solve the problem:
  1. Check the forum at Leo – they tend to be more specific there.
  2. Check out the word at Cambridge Dictionary or Merriam Webster’s –the English definition will help you to find out whether you’ve picked the right word.
  3. Google the word and check the context in which it appears.
  • When you look up a word, do also look for pronunciation hints – Leo can help here.
  • Don’t use a simple word-to-word translation. Try to translate phrases as a whole.
  • Sometimes you’ll find plenty of spelling mistakes in texts. Try out alternative forms at Google!
  • It’s fine to use Babel Fish or the Google Translator – but you shouldn’t trust the program too much. Always double check words and phrases you don’t know.
  • Make sure you use the right register of style. If the text is very formal (“Dear Sir or Madam”) the tone of your translation shouldn’t be too colloquial.
  • Watch out for: “coll.” = colloquial (everyday English), “obs.” = obsolete (no longer used), “pej.” = pejorative (bad language), “sl.” = slang
  • Use translation as a means to enhance your vocabulary. Collect helpful phrases.
  • You may have to use a different tense: Ich bin gestern einkaufen gegangen” > “I went shopping with my mom”.
  • Keep in mind that two languages reflect two cultures: “a friend” is not necessarily a “Freund”, it could also be a “Bekannter”.
  • It’s often a god thing to shorten things up and make them simple – why not make two short English sentences instead of a long German sentence?
  • Always check grammar, spelling, word order, and all the other “petty” things.
  • Make sure the result does not sound like a translated text but like an English or German original.
  • Please watch out for words that are AE (American English) or BE (British English)- they may differ from each other.
  • Watch out! Sometimes compounds are spelled in one word and sometimes they are split up in two words.
  • Avoid repeating one and the same word over and over – use a thesaurus (Roget’s Thesaurus, or simply the MS Word thesaurus).

Translation Problems: German-English

1. Getting relative clauses and contact clauses right. Watch out for WHICH (things!) and WHO (people!); THAT can be used only in a defining relative clause! The zero option (no pronoun) can only be used only in a defining relative clause with the subject not being the same as in the main clause!

Wer Kolonisten sät, wird Amerikaner ernten. = 1. If you sow colonists, you’ll reap Americans. 2. He who sows colonists will reap Americans.

2. Eigen. If you translate “eigen” into English, please keep in mind it must be personalized! (not “the own” but “its own”, “their own”, or “of his / her own”…

Seine eigenen Fehler = one’s own mistakes. --- Ein eigenes Zimmer = a room of her own. --- Die ihm eigene Faulheit = the laziness typical of him

3. The definite article. Large, abstract nouns usually don’t take an article – musical instruments and some countries take an article where it is not needed in German.

Die Angst ist eines der Gefühle, die… = Fear is one of the feelings…--- Die Angst vor Ruhm = The fear of fame… --- Die Vergangenheit / Die Zukunft = the past / the future --- Gitarre spielen = to play the guitar --- Die meisten Hausfrauen = Most housewives --- Die Türkei = Turkey --- In der Hauptstraße = In High Street --- ein Mitglied der NATO = a member of NATO (NATO is poken as one word = acronym!) --- ein Mitglied der EU = a member of the EU --- Der Buckingham Palace = Buckingham Palace --- Der Hyde-Park = Hyde Park --- Für den deutsche Übersetzer (an sich) = for the German translator / for German translators

4. “etwas machen lassen”

Ich lasse dich gehen. = I allow you to go. / I let you go.--- Ich lasse mein Auto reparieren. = I’ll have my car repaired. --- Ich habe mein Buch fallen lassen. = I dropped my book.

5. Adjective or adverb. It’s sometimes tricky to find out whether a form is used as an adjective or as an adverb: “Er stand verlegen da und spielte verlegen mit seinem Schlüssel.” (He stood there, embarrassed, and played embarassedely with his keys.)

Some adjectives can be a problem when turned into adverbs: stale > staly, cool > coolly, idiotic > idiotically (BUT: public > publicly). If the adjective already ends with –ly, it requires a different adverbial form: melancholy > in a melancholy way



6. Man. The passive is often the least “dangerous” form to translate German “man”.

Man glaubt, … --- Colloquially: You believe… --- Formally: One believes… --- In the passive voice: it is believed… --- They believe… / People believe…

7. Continuous Tense. When you have forms like “he’s cooking”, you must try and find out whether…
  • something is done right now (= gerade)
  • something is done so often that it annoys the speaker
  • something will be done in the future

Ah, you’re cooking = Ah, du kochst gerade. --- They were forever quarrelling = Sie stritten sich andauernd. --- Are they having lunch tomorrow? = Werden sie morgen zu Mittag essen?

8. Present perfect vs. simple past. Simple past is needed when the action referred to is finished, over. Present perfect is needed when the action referred to still affects the present. With “for”, “since”, “just”, “never”, the present perfect is required.

Sie ist 1732 gestorben. = She died in 1732. --- Er wohnt schon seit 1994 in Putney. = He’s lived in Putney since 1994.

9. “since” and “for”

The conjunction “since” refers to the beginning of an action (“since 1984”), “for” refers to a period of time (“for 20 years”). In this case, German present tense is translated as English present perfect and German past tense is rendered as English Past Perfect. “Seitdem” is usually translated “(ever) since”.

10. German “Flavour Particles” such as “doch”, “schon”, “ja”, “halt”.

Schon beim bloßen Namen… = The very name of… --- Schon 1492… = As early as 1492… --- Schon, aber ich dachte… = (Well) Yes, but I thought… --- Sie wird schon kommen. = She’ll surely come. / She’s sure to come. --- Ich weiß es ja / doch! = But I know it! --- Er ist ja nicht da. = He’s not in after all. --- Das ist ja äußerst seltsam. = That’s very strange indeed. --- Meine Kekse sind doch gut, oder? = My cookies taste really good, don’t they? --- Bleib ja im Auto! = Do stay in the car! --- Trau dir das ja nicht! = Don’t you dare!

11. “dass”

Daran, dass… = The fact that… --- Das Geheimnis aller Macht besteht darin, dass man weiß… = The secret of all power is in knowing that… --- Er konnte nicht bestreiten / leugnen / verbergen, dass= There was no denying the fact that… --- Das verhindert, dass wir uns verlieben. = That prevents us from falling in love. --- Er will, dass ihr kommt. = He wants you to come.

12. Reported speech. (A) In past tense, a verb of reporting is required where the German original has only a subjunctive form. (B) If a statement appears to be of timeless validity, no reported sppech is necessary.

(A) Der Ladenbesitzer behauptete, der Papagei sei nicht tot. Er ruhe sich nur aus. = The shopkeeper maintained / claimed the parrot was not dead. The parrot, he added / continued, was only resting.--- (B)  Francis Bacon said that knowledge is power.

13. The verbal noun in German. Verbal nouns are not as common in English as they are in German. You can translate verbal nouns using gerunds OR infinitives with “to”, the passive infinitive, a relative clause, a periphrasis with “act” or “process”.

Klatschen heißt anderer Sünden zu berichten. = Gossiping is to confess other people’s sins. --- Regieren, das heißt vorausschauen. = To governis to look into the future. --- Der Sinn einer Frage ist die Methode ihrer Beantwortung. = The sense of a question ist he method by which it is answered. --- Das ist zum Verrücktwerden. = That’s enough to drive you crazy. --- Forschen ist, was dir sagt, dass ein Esel zwei Ohren hat. = Research is what tells you that a donkey hast wo ears.

14. The German adjectival phrase. Often, adjectives BEFORE a noun should be replaced by a relative clause or an adjectival clause AFTER the noun. (Exception: expressions of time such as “einst” or “damals”).

Der Mensch ist ein durch die Zensur gerutschter Affe. = The human being is an ape that has slipped through the censorship. --- Der zu zahlende Betrag war übertrieben hoch. = The amount to be paid was exorbitant. --- Die einst bezaubernde Herzogin = the once charming duchess

15. Adjectival nouns.

Der Weise und die Einäugige = the wise man and the one-eyed lady --- Die Blinden, die Reichen = the blind , the rich --- Arme und Reiche… = Poor people and rich people --- Das Schöne und das Erhabene = the beautiful and the sublime --- Billiges und Teures = Cheap things and expensive things --- Das Auffälligste an ihm war… = The most striking thing about him was…

16. German “erst”.

Es ist erst zehn! = It’s only ten o’clock! --- Die Lieferung trifft erst nächste Woche ein. = The delivery will not arrive until next week. --- Er ist ein bisschen doof, aber seine Eltern sind erst blöd. = He’s a bit thick, but his parents are really stupid. --- Erst ich, dann du. = First me, then you.