Post - English and German Academic Writing One Size Does Not Fit All

German and English academic texts often employ different styles of argumentation, and terminology cannot necessarily be translated like-for-like.

Structural Differences

Language has different functions in English and German academic usage. Linguists differentiate, for example, between a more recipient-oriented approach in English as opposed to a more content-oriented approach in German. In English, theories and results are presented by means of dialogic argumentation, the aim of which is to include counter-arguments in order to arrive at a mutual common sense view among authors and readers. The introductions to English academic texts are therefore often internally structured and provide all kinds of preliminary information (so-called advance organisers), introducing readers to the academic subject of the piece and presenting the argumentative approach by means of the “red thread” running through the piece. Examples of advance organizers are: this paper describes, this paper aims to; in section a, b, c the paper outlines. A common understanding is established, for example, by formulations such as “civic engagement as a tool for democracy building has deep roots … going back to … Alexis de Tocqueville”; “so despite its length, this work deals only with bare essentials and their ‚cleaning‘, and may be characterized summarily as a work on mainstream basics. While the task may appear unexciting, it still is much a needed one because we must have (and give) reasons for the institutions we have, and because democracies are not viable unless the citizens understand them”. (Sartori: The Theory of Democracy revisited. Chatham House Publishers, New Jersey 1987, xi)

German academic texts, on the other hand, are often more hermeneutically structured. The authors assume readers have knowledge of the content that is about to be presented. The introductions are discursively motivated, e.g. “Der Begriff der Politischen Kultur hat einen Siegeszug durch die Welt angetreten” (“The concept of political culture has begun its triumphant advance through the world”) (Sontheimer: Deutschlands Politische Kultur. Piper Munich 1991, 9). Then, different aspects – independent of one another – are detailed under subheadings, e.g. Politische Kultur normativ gesehen, Wie entsteht eine Politische Kultur, Die Rolle der Politiker, Die reife demokratische Kultur (Political Culture from a Normative Perspective, How does a Political Culture Develop, The Role of Politicians, Mature Democratic Culture). German texts tend to employ fewer linguistic devices that introduce the structure of the text at hand, which is why elements of content are initially, for the most part, detailed separately, with no attempt being made to connect them with one another. The readers must work out the relations between them themselves. The overall objective is to prove the scientific necessity of a study – in English, this consensus is incorporated into – or assumed by – the argumentation, so it is no longer necessary to provide such proof. Translators translating out of German must therefore be familiar with the specialist contexts of the respective source texts in order to correctly classify the meanings and thereby translate them appropriately. Where necessary, texts must be translated in such a way that they can be comprehended by the non-German-speaking target audience, who may not be as familiar with the German text structure. Readers are not guided through the text as much as they are in English-language academic texts. Instead of establishing a “red thread”, the introduction sets out several threads, and these are only gradually brought together in the course of the text at hand.

Semantic Differences       

There are also differences on the semantic level. German scholarship mainly developed within philosophy during the Enlightenment period and emancipated itself from the antique models, which is why new concepts were created that were able to better describe the new, enlightened world and its ideas. Many scientific terms have therefore grown out of German’s own language tradition, and their content is defined: they name the object that is being described or examined, employing attributive specification. Here, value is placed on conceptual non-ambiguity that represents new knowledge – in contrast to English. The linguistic roots of English specialist terminology mostly come from Greek or Latin. There is much more of a tendency to employ self-contained and ambiguous terms, which must first be embedded in a general language context in order to preserve their respective meaning. The representation of new knowledge is therefore rarely attached to individual defining terms but is developed in the text in a linear way. Translators translating from English must therefore put a lot of work into contextual terminology, which must be precisely adapted to the target audience’s understanding. A term such as leader in political texts, for example, offers German translators an abundance of possible translations from which the most appropriate must be selected according to context. This includes avoiding the translation variant Führer – a contaminated variant in German. The content of the term governance can only be classified according to the context, and usually only with the aid of adjectives. Corporate governance usually means more than its basic meaning, for it also contains a value judgement (it is generally “good”, “correct”, etc.).  Artifacts – as the term is used by Pasquale Gagliardi in his book Symbols and Artifacts: Views of the Corporate Landscape – are primarily works created by human beings, but they can also be patterns of behaviour in the sense of any activity within a society that is symbolically charged or that signifies meaning.

If you found this article useful, here’s how you can share it with your colleagues:

After you have typed in some text, hit ENTER to start searching...