When you receive an English translation of your German manuscript, it may differ slightly in tone and style from your original. In this blog article we explain how and why.
Academic writing in any language makes use of “hedging”, i.e. framing assertions in tentative language in proportion to the evidence or in order to “soften” arguments or, in other words, to present them less forcefully. In German there is a higher frequency of direct and explicit language when making assertions (e.g. “Das vorliegende Forschungsprojekt zeigt, dass …”), creating a sense of the writer’s authority. In English, however, there is a tendency to “downtone” or soften assertions in order to mitigate criticism or create a tone of modesty (Writing Development Centre). Here are some examples:
- “In this article we hope to show that …”
- “Smith (2008) appears to marginalize this issue”
- “These results may have been misinterpreted”
- “This would indicate that …”
Traditionally, academics writing in English have avoided using personal pronouns in order to maintain a formal, objective tone. However, the use of personal pronouns is increasing – especially in the social sciences and humanities (Bryson). In German, however, use of personal pronouns is not as common. In fact, English translators cannot but be in awe of the range and ingenuity German employs in removing human agency! Here are just a few examples from the German palette:
- “In einem ersten Schritt wird aufgezeigt …” (“Firstly, I will demonstrate …”)
- “Es lässt sich voraussetzen, dass …“ (“We can assume that … ”)
- “In dem Vergleich dieser Gesellschaftsschichten fällt auf ….” (here, the English translator might choose to keep the impersonal style: “The comparison of these social classes shows that ….”, however, it would also be natural in English to introduce a personal pronoun here: “If we compare these social classes, we see that …”.
Furthermore, German frequently uses the impersonal generic pronoun “man”, whereas the English “one” is almost always avoided (except by the queen!): “Man soll die verschiedenen Möglichkeiten in Betracht ziehen” (“We should consider the possibilities”).
The use of the passive voice also contributes to this more impersonal, neutral tone of German academic writing, e.g.:
- “In dieser Arbeit werden die Vorteile und Nachteile von X diskutiert”
- “Es muss angenommen werden, dass…”
- “Es sei noch zu erwägen, ob …”
Various possible passive-voice translations into English are possible in each case here, however, in English it would also be very natural to use the active voice (with or without a personal pronoun), e.g.:
- “In this article, I will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of X”
- “We must assume here that …”
- “We still need to consider whether …”
German often uses nouns where English would tend to use verbs, e.g.:
- “Die Diskussionen bringen polarisierte Meinungen zum Ausdruck” (“The discussions express polarized views”)
- “Die Kurse bieten Flexibilität bei der Steuerung und Optimierung von Lernprozessen an” (“The courses offer flexibility in managing and optimizing learning processes”)
- “Das Unterdrücken negativer Gefühle führt zu weiteren Problemen” (“Suppressing negative feelings leads to further problems”)
So, although the idea that the British are polite and reserved is certainly a stereotype, the English translation you receive may be more cautious and tentative in tone than your German original – the English like to “hedge their bets”. Furthermore, if your original text has a consistently impersonal tone, you may well find that the English translator has varied this by introducing some personal pronouns and a more active voice, as this mix is more natural in English. This is especially the case if your text is intended to be a conference paper. Finally, don’t be surprised to find your nouns have morphed into something else!
Bryson, Shane (2015), ‘Quick guide to the use of personal pronouns in academic work’, https://www.scribbr.com/academic-writing/quick-guide-use-personal-pronouns-academic-work/ (retrieved 24/3/16)
Writing Development Centre, Newcastle University, ‘Hedging’, http://www.ncl.ac.uk/students/wdc/learning/language/hedging.htm (retrieved 24/3/16)
Clyne, Michael (1991), ‘The sociocultural dimension: The dilemma of the German speaking scholar’, in Hartmut Schröder (ed.), Subject oriented texts (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter), pp. 49-67
Kreutz, Heinz and Harres, Annette (1997), ‘Some observations on the distribution and function of hedging in German and English academic writing’, in Anna Duszak (ed.), Culture and Styles of Academic Discourse (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter), pp. 181-201
Skrandies, Peter (2011), ‘Everyday Academic Language in German Historiography’, German as a Foreign Language, 1: 99-123