4 English words German translators love to hate

by | Jun 2, 2016 | Translators' Column


I often translate marketing texts. Sometimes clients send me documents with nothing but “Dear…”  in the address line at the beginning of a letter or email. Leaving the name blank for later insertion. In theory this should be easy to translate, in reality, it’s incredibly complex.

The reasons for that are:

  1. German has a polite form of address and a friendly, familiar one. The “Dear” depends on the writer’s relationship with the addressee. In a first introduction and in some formal contexts, the correct translation is “Sehr geehrte/r”, which roughly means “dear honoured…” In less formal contexts and, if the writer has a good personal relationship with the addressee, the correct German word would be “Lieber”.
  2. Germans do not usually use first names but address each other as Mr or Ms xxx. A company would need to know the gender of the person they’re writing to, as well as the level of familiarity they can use to address them. The opening greeting then becomes “Sehr geehrter Herr…” (dear Mr…) or “Lieber Herr…” depending on the level of formality required.
  3. The grammatical gender of the word “dear” depends on the gender of the addressee. So it’s “Sehr geehrter Herr….” for a man, but “Sehr geehrte Frau…“ for a woman. Or, of course, “Lieber Herr….” and “Liebe Frau… “

It soon becomes clear why German translators often tear their hair out and why companies prefer generic greetings such as “dear customer”!


Translating the word “you” is complicated for the same reasons the word “dear” is complicated. The translation depends on the writer’s familiarity with the addressee.

  1. In most cases it’s safe to opt for the formal “Sie”.
  2. Companies assume that just because they communicate with their German business partners on first name terms, using the familiar form is correct. Germans are quite flexible and happy to use first names with British and American clients. They have developed a hybrid approach for this purpose, where the informal first name is accompanied by “Sie”, the formal version of “you”.
  3. This is particularly tricky in advertising, when companies have to decide quite clearly who their target market is and how familiar they want to be with them. IKEA made the decision to address all German clients with the informal “Du”, something that caused a fair amount of consternation at first, but that is now fully accepted. However, in direct correspondence, and in its legal T & Cs, data protection wordings etc., even IKEA reverts to the formal “Sie”. In Austria, the company stuck with the formal form throughout.

It is important to brief your German translator carefully about the company image to be projected, the target market and the age group of the target readership!


No, really, “it” can be a huge problem. In English, all nouns are “it”. In German, nouns have three different grammatical genders. Tables are “he”, table cloths are “she” and the glasses on the table are “it”.

  1. When English companies change parts of their product portfolio and ask their German translator to just change “table” to “table cloth”, they can be shocked to discover that this small change will have an impact on every single occurrence of the word “it” in their text that refers to this new item. It will also change every adjective, by the way, as the ending of “brown” in your brown table changes when you are selling a brown table cloth.
  2. This is a real problem when working with CAT tools, where companies do not want to pay for 100% matches, i.e. sentences that are 100% the same as previously translated sentences. What is a 100% match in English is often not a 100% match in German, and it is “it” that is to blame.


Unexpected item in the baggage area!
It’s not only supermarket checkouts that have problems identifying “items”. German translators can be just as stuck.

  1. Depending on context, the physical “item” is an article, an object, a product, a piece of equipment, a unit or an element. And even a “thing”.
  2. Just like in English, “items” can also be entries, positions, partial amounts (on an invoice), posts. There are agenda items and points on a list.
  3. There is bookkeeping language, legal language, technical language, scientific language. Each time the context determines the correct choice of words.

Unlike in English, where the word “item” can be used to express all these things, German does not have a catch-all word that encompasses all these meanings. If German translators asks for specific information about just what item is to be placed in the baggage area – please don’t think they don’t even know basic English but help them to work out precisely which German term is correct in the context.


There are many apparently very simple words that are a real challenge to translate. Some, because the German grammar and sentence structure is far more complex than English. Some, because the cultural expectations are different in both countries. And many more, like “item”, because there are so many different ways of translating that one small word.

Don’t be surprised if German translators ask many questions that really seem incredibly strange at times!

The author of this article is Erika Baker, English-German translator based near Bristol in the UK.

Accurate, confidential, efficient and reliable English-German translations

Professionally qualified German translator into English and English into German, offering first class translation services for commercial, industrial, governmental and private clients.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This