Servus! – A Beginner’s Guide to the Wonders of Translating Dialects

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Swiss German is held to be a dialect of German, even though it is so different from High German, that it is often incomprehensible to native Germans. Dutch on the other hand is classed as a separate language, even though it’s generally much easier for Germans to understand, at least when it’s spoken slowly. Traditional Bavarian, meanwhile, is alive and well and in active use in Germany’s most southern state and is a world on its own compared to other variations of German. The reasons for this involve several hundred years of history and sociology as well as very modern questions of identity.

From a translation perspective, however, the question of accommodating dialects raises all sorts of practical points. For literary translators, one option is to transpose one dialect into another. For example, in the Inspector Montalbano novels, the Sicilian dialect is transposed into Brooklyn dialect. In one sense, this is arguably absurd, but in another, it works. It conveys the impression of a group of people bound by ties which include a common and defining language. Another option is to make a reference to the use of dialect, but to translate the actual words into a standard version of the language, while a third is simply to ignore it.

The question of dialect comes is less of an issue for technical translations, most of the time a German English translator will be working from a document written in high German, which they will translate into equivalent English. A German NAATI translator is arguably even more likely to be working in the formal, written language. A German translator in Canberra may even be working with documents intended for governmental use. Nevertheless, it can pose interesting questions for companies looking to get a commercial message across as the creativity and engaging of emotions required in advertising is more in line with literary translation.