I'm unsure whether my question is on-topic here, but it's about the German language, so I've decided to try.

I am an undergraduate student from Japan who learns foreign languages and loves reading books, especially historical ones. German is my third foreign language, so my German isn't yet good enough to effortlessly read German books, but I've read translations of some books by Remarque, Manstein, Hitler, and Bismarck. My impression is that German books, at least in translation, read quite differently from other books. It isn't a big stretch to say that I feel as if German books were written by aliens who think and express their thoughts differently from ordinary people. And my impression doesn't change when I read German books in English translation rather than Japanese translation. I've read many English books in the original language, including such historical books as The Second World War by Churchill, July 1914: Countdown to War by McMeekin, and Narrative of events during the invasion of Russia by Napoleon Bonaparte and the retreat of the French Army 1812 by Wilson, so I'm pretty confident to say that English translations of German books read pretty different from English books, which I find to be quite naturally written.

I'm curious as to why translations of German books feel so different from other books. Is it at least partially due to the German language itself, or is it something purely culture-related that makes such a difference?

To illustrate what I am talking about, here's a random sentence from an English translation of Bismarck's Gedanken und Erinnerungen:

I put a few questions to Moltke as to the extent of his confidence in the state of our preparations, especially as to the time they would still require in order to meet this sudden risk of war.

That's a very typical sentence from the book - a sentence that feels too artificial, bulky, and needlessly long. "Extent of his confidence in the state of our preparations," oh my God! I'd write much simpler: I asked Moltke how prepared our army was for war. That's the real meaning in the context, as you can check by looking in the book. Everything I omitted in my own translation is either insignificant or obvious from the context anyway. If I were to emphasize the interest to know the time period needed to prepare for war, I'd still write something simple: I asked Moltke how prepared our army was, and, in particular, how long it would take to get ready for war. And even if I were to convey all unnecessary nuances, I'd still find a way to write something natural, like this: I asked Moltke a few questions about how prepared our army was and how sure he was about that, focusing on the time needed to get ready for such a risk of war.

I looked in the original German text, and here it is:

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So as far I can judge, it isn't a fault of the translator. He accurately translated what Bismarck had written.

Sure, the sentence in its accurate English translation doesn't look weird to an extreme, but the thing is that when a whole book is written like that, it's a pretty special read, so I wonder what makes German authors routinely express themselves in such a way. Is it just how the German language works, or is it rather a cultural tradition to write like that?

There are many other aspects that make German books feel different. For instance, the sense of obligation is very often referred or appealed to in German books, explicitly or implicitly, or at least that's my impression from translations. More broadly, the way of thinking underlying writings of German authors seems to be tied to some set of unwritten principles or rules according to which decisions in life should be taken or how things should be. A contrast is often made between how things should be and how they actually are, and this results in a flavor of overall gloom.

I hope that German speakers can offer their perspective as to why translations of German books read differently from other books. Is it due to the German language itself shaping the way of expressing thoughts? Or do accurate English translations of German texts actually misrepresent them in terms of style and emotional connotations? Or is the effect due to cultural factors?

  • 5
    I'm too lazy to write a full elaborative answer, but your sampling rate seems to be highly biased. Languages offer different registers of speech, i.e. formal, colloquial, poetic, etc. German is no exception. Of course, there are some nuances - if not differences - in asking "what is the status" and "what is your confidence in the status". In the end, it more or less boils down to the same inquiry, but that does not justify a simpler or easier translation, where essentiell information is lost. With that in mind, I'm VTC as this is not German specific and opinion-based ("why?"). Jul 15 '20 at 17:03
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    If your German is good enough, you may find this interesting: usaerklaert.wordpress.com/2006/10/08/… In any case you can read the English examples to test your hypothesis.
    – Carsten S
    Jul 15 '20 at 17:45
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    Bismarck and his contemporaries certainly had their own style which now appears to be old-fashioned, to say the least. Meanwhile a law requires German authorities to provide information in "leichter Sprache". See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leichte_Sprache .
    – Paul Frost
    Jul 16 '20 at 0:36
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    Hello moderators, I don't understand your verdict that this question needs to be closed because it was "opinion based". The core question is if German is so twisted and contorted as Mitsuko got the impression (based on a specific selection of texts). There might be a biased presupposition, but anyway the question can be answered clearly. So why close it? Jul 16 '20 at 15:56
  • 4
    I support Christian Geiselmann and voted to reopen it. This question is better than many other questions which have never been closed.
    – Paul Frost
    Jul 16 '20 at 23:53

The answer to your question is actually simple:

The books you are currently reading are books from late 19th (or early 20th) century; moreover they seem to tend to be written by statesmen (politicians / bureaucrats; Remarque is an exception). Texts from that period and from that kind of people tend to use a very manneristic (complicated, convoluted, and noun-loaden) style. This is by no means good style, even not at the time, and definitely not today. Also, it is difficult to translate into other languages as a "style-true" translation would require doing things in other languages that are not common in those languages.

You should compare well-written modern German to well-written modern English.

Or if you insist on using books from mid-late 19th century: compare a novel by Karl May (e.g. Das Buschgespenst) to a novel by Wilkie Collins (e.g. The Moonstone). Both are good authors (and both books are precursors of modern crime story literature). With them you will find that differences are much smaller.

Or if you want to compare a very good modern German novel with its very good English translation, take Wolf Haas' Komm süßer Tod. There is a version of the book available that has both the German original and a congenial English translation, issued by "Swiss Re" insurance company in about 2003 or so, as a Christmas present for customers and partners. I suppose copies are available in the second hand book market.


  • Remarque is of course a good writer; in his texts you will not find the mannerisms of other authors of that time.
  • Hitler as an author is as dreadful as in any other activity of his; it is a strange idea to even consider his texts for linguistic comparison, except perhaps for an analysis of the linguistics of the totalitarian mind. (Or, thinking of Mein Kampf, you might use it as a bleak example for the clumsy writing of the untrained writer and generally under-educated.)
  • I looked for the Wolf Haas novel (bilingual edition) and indeed found copies at www.booklooker.de, see here one of them (link copied 2020-07-16): https://www.booklooker.de/B%C3%BCcher/Wolf-Haas+Come-sweet-death-Komm-s%C3%BC%C3%9Fer-Tod/id/A02ndMMv01ZZw

Wolf Haas - Komm süßer Tod Deutsch/English book cover

  • Minor remark: seems like the bilingual edition of the novel was published by Swiss Re instead of Munich Re. Jul 16 '20 at 12:46
  • @amadeusamadeus Ups, yes, totally right. Swiss Re... I confused this because I got it at that time from their office in Munich Jul 16 '20 at 14:26

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