Quick background: I am working on a translation from English to German of a Canadian history textbook (note: for grade 7 students).

The textbook refers consistently to "Britain" and does not use the term "Great Britain," which are of course two different things. I have been translating "Britain" to "Britannien" in order to show this difference.

Starting in the early 1600s France and Britain began to establish colonies in North America.

Anfang der 1600er begannen Frankreich und Britannien, Kolonien in Nordamerika zu etablieren.

However, when another German speaker proofread my work she changed every instance of "Britannien" to "Großbritannien".

On further examination it seems like the textbook is referring to "Britain" throughout Canadian history, even though the country was called "Great Britain" starting already in the early 1600s, and was officially unified at the start of the 1700s.

So, now I am not sure whether I should translate the term as "Großbritannien" (because this is a more common term used in everyday life) or "Britannien" (because it is a more accurate translation). Moreover, if I am being picky about the historical accuracy of the term, should I switch from "Britannien" to "Großbritannien" once the date requires it?

Any ideas and advice are greatly appreciated.

To clarify, here are examples of what my choices are, in my mind:

  • Translate word-for-word every instance of Britain to Britannien.
    This would be historically inaccurate, but a more faithful literal translation.

  • Translate word-for-word every instance of Britain to Großbritannien.
    This would be historically inaccurate, but might make perhaps slightly more sense in German.

  • Translate Britain to either Britannien or Großbritannien where appropriate depending on historical context.
    This would be historically accurate, but more confusing and not very faithful as a translation.

  • I can't speak for German usage, but I can confirm that in English, "Great Britain" is a geographical term, and "United Kingdon" is a political one. The "United" refers to the 1707 Union between England and Scotland (not the 1801 Union with Ireland), while the "Great" has a messy history, and in modern colloquial speech is often used just to clarify that "Britain" or "British" is not being used as shorthand for "(of the) United Kingdom". This explains it well, although it doesn't go into historical changes: qntm.org/uk
    – IMSoP
    Jul 21, 2014 at 20:11
  • It's also worth pointing out that the period in question began with the King of Scotland also becoming the King of England (although he ruled over two separate political states), and saw a series of Civil Wars which dramatically changed their political structures. A sentence which encompasses the whole of that period as though "Britain" were a continuous entity is therefore necessarily glossing over a lot of details in order to emphasise a longer trend.
    – IMSoP
    Jul 21, 2014 at 20:27
  • The only use of "Britannien" I have come across is when talking about the Roman period. Everybody uses either "England" (approximately 90% of the time) or "Großbritannien" (9.999%) to refer to the UK, only nitpicking specialists use any other term. If you use anything except "Großbritannien" in a book for unsuspecting MG kids you need to explain that usage, e.g. "Im Vereinigten Königreich – dem offiziellen Namen Großbritanniens – ..." or "Britannien – wie Großbritannien vor der Vereinigung von ... genannt wurde – ...".
    – user4973
    Jul 24, 2014 at 11:35

3 Answers 3


The correct German translation of the political country "United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)" is Vereinigtes Königreich (von Großbritannien und Nordirland).

Both, the English Great Britain, and the German Großbritannien refer to the geographic island (as opposed to "little" Britain which is Brittany in France).

However it is not uncommon in the English language to refer to the United Kingdom as "Britain", a term that never existed as an official name for a political country. Hence the usage of Britain in the sentence you quoted is historically incorrect.

Similar to the English we Germans also use such a term. However we prefer not to use Britannien but we say Großbritannien when in fact we were meaning the United Kingdom. We even may hear people say England when referring to the United Kingdom.

This makes me believe that when translating "Britain" to Großbritannien in the context you gave it only introduces the same incorrect term for the political country as the author of the original did.

There are two reasons why we probably should not use the correct term Vereinigtes Königreich:

  • the author of the original text did use Britain, not UK.
  • on talking of history in the 17th Century we could not use United Kingdom as it did not exist yet (is was England and Scotland then).
  • Would you advocate continuing the incorrect term for the political country? I believe the author's intent was to avoid complicating things for the target audience (mostly 12-13 year-olds).
    – Kanadier
    Jul 21, 2014 at 18:36
  • At least the German term Großbritannien is widely used. This includes even newspapers or official sources. I believe it is only slightly incorrect but definitely not wrong ;)
    – Takkat
    Jul 21, 2014 at 18:41

Großbritannien = Britannien

The prefix "Groß-" was added for better distinction against the French "Bretagne", which was sometimes reffered to as "Britannien". So in German, Großbritannien never includes any part of Ireland. And as far as I know, the same holds for English.

So whenever translating "(Great) Britain", use "Großbritannien" so people can be sure it's not the "Bretagne".

(United*) Kingdom of Great Britain (1707 to 1800)

Use "(Vereinigtes) Königreich Großbritannien" for the first time in a text.
After that you can abbreviate to "Großbritannien", just tell the reader.

Vereinigtes Königreich (since 1801)

Only make sure that the reader knows if this includes the whole of Ireland, or just Northern Ireland.

Note that after 1801, "Großbritannien" cannot be used as an abbreviation anymore.

Your example sentence:

Starting in the early 1600s France and Britain began to establish colonies in North America.

Anfang der 1600er begannen Frankreich und Britannien, Kolonien in Nordamerika zu etablieren.

Wouldn't "(Kingdom of) England"/"(Königreich) England" be the correct choice here?

  *There's a huge discussion whether "united" should be added. Luckily, brackets are very easy to translate.

  • This is very interesting. What word would you use to describe the monarchy pre-1707? I have read that it was colloquially called "Great Britain" already around 1603, and before that it really was only Britain. Also just so I understand, after the year 1801 you would not use the term Großbritannien? Do political scientists in Germany really only refer to the "Vereinigtes Königreich" after this time period?
    – Kanadier
    Jul 21, 2014 at 18:20
  • Which monarchy?
    – user6191
    Jul 21, 2014 at 18:29
  • I hope they don't call it that, because to me, that's either the big island or the monarchy that comprised that very same big island.
    – user6191
    Jul 21, 2014 at 18:32
  • I am almost certain that in terms of the empire and imperialism the term "England" is never used.
    – Kanadier
    Jul 21, 2014 at 18:40
  • That's still two monarchies.
    – user6191
    Jul 21, 2014 at 18:40

Well, as far as I know, is the issue that Britannien is the island and Großbritannien is the country.

Since you are writing a historical essay, I would change the country name and maybe mention it in a side note.

Furthermore, the term 1600er is not very widely used in German. It is preferred to write 17. Jahrhundert. This isn't wrong, just not very common...

  • 1
    The issue is that the country name was not technically Großbritannien for a good portion of its history (ie before the 1700s), which makes the translation complicated, as I have noted above.
    – Kanadier
    Jul 21, 2014 at 17:17
  • and I said that you should be accurate with the names as well.
    – Armin
    Jul 21, 2014 at 17:18
  • Have you ruled out "England"? This is by far the most common name in German. To this day it is used even for what technically would be the UK, at least by laymen. Surely the "English king" etc. would rule over England?
    – Ingmar
    Jul 21, 2014 at 17:20
  • Sorry, I misunderstood your comment then. What do you mean by "I would change the country name"?
    – Kanadier
    Jul 21, 2014 at 17:20
  • 1
    @Ingmar if you try to write a historical accurate essay this is no option...
    – Armin
    Jul 21, 2014 at 17:21

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