Review of Recent GLD Webinar: Deutsch ist nicht gleich Deutsch

On March 7th, GLD members Bettina Schreibmaier-Clasen and Rainer Dykowski presented a webinar to share their insights about the distinctive features of the German variants spoken and written in Austria and Switzerland. Attendees were located in the US, Canada, and Europe.

Bettina began her presentation by providing a short personal background. As a native of Germany who moved to Vienna, Austria, in 2013, her firsthand experience provided valuable insights into the complexities of translating Austrian German.

Despite half of her family being Austrian, Bettina’s direct exposure dealing with German language variants and dialects highlights the effort required for even native speakers to comprehend linguistic nuances. She emphasized that she is by no means an expert in Austrian German and continues to learn new things every day. Bettina’s humility in acknowledging her own learning journey underscores the importance of continuous education and adaptation, encouraging language professionals to embrace linguistic diversity to enrich their communication skills and foster cultural appreciation.

She then provided some interesting facts and a brief history of Austrian German, explaining that it consists of additional dialects and that German was not Austria’s national language until 1920. Following this, Bettina presented various examples of deviations between Austrian German and High German. These included small differences, such as the alteration of definite articles as well as more puzzling dissimilarities. For example, Blumenkohl (cauliflower) in High German is Karfiol in Austrian German. She also provided examples of false friends, terms that sound incorrect, and terms that would be incomprehensible to speakers unfamiliar with the Austrian variant.

Bettina ended her presentation by answering the question of whether translators can translate into Austrian German if they usually only take on DE-DE projects. Her answer: “Auf keinen Fall” (Certainly not). She emphasized that translators must have sufficient qualifications and knowledge of a language variant or be native speakers to translate into it. However, Bettina believes that translating from Austrian German is a viable option for translators who remain attentive to regional nuances.

Rainer began his segment of the webinar by offering a brief personal history. He was born and raised in Germany, directly on the Swiss border, and has lived in Switzerland since 2006. Rainer is a native speaker of Alemannic German and High German, with Alemannic belonging to the dialect continuum spoken in Switzerland.

Next, he provided some insights into how Swiss German is utilized in both written and spoken forms. Swiss German is highly valued in both formal and informal contexts. In formal settings, such as official publications and newspapers, Swiss Standard German is predominantly used. However, in informal situations like text messages and casual conversations, Swiss German dialects, known as Mundart, prevail. This indicates a significant contrast in the perception and usage of language between formal and informal contexts in Switzerland.

Rainer then discussed Helvetisms, linguistic features specific to Swiss German, including vocabulary, expressions, pronunciations, and grammatical structures. These elements are unique to Swiss German and reflect the cultural and historical influences on the Swiss German language, contributing to its distinct character.

He then presented examples of words unique to Swiss German, as well as words with differing cases and usages. Additionally, Rainer noted certain legal and political terms that are the same in High German, but carry a different meaning in Swiss German, along with legal concepts that would likely be unfamiliar to those outside of Switzerland.

One significant orthographic distinction of Swiss German that Rainer discussed is the lack of the Eszett “ß.” Instead, a double “s” is used. For example, in Germany, Straße (road), and in Switzerland, Strasse. Along with other details, he noted how French and Italian loan words maintain their native spelling. Rainer then explained how Swiss German pronunciation differs from written German and that there may also be regional variations.

Rainer concluded his presentation by emphasizing the importance of translators having a strong familiarity with the peculiarities of Swiss German. He highlighted the significant challenge it poses for foreigners to acquire this knowledge, as it would require a considerable time investment. Additionally, Rainer underscored the necessity of infusing every text with a “Swiss touch,” when translating for a Swiss audience. He noted that the degree of “Swiss touch” should correspond to the subject and target audience; with greater informality requiring a more pronounced Swiss influence/a stronger Swiss influence.

Bettina and Rainer both provided a detailed summary of the linguistic characteristics of Austrian and Swiss German, while also giving translators insight into the practicality of translating to or from these distinct German variants. I thought the webinar provided meaningful perspectives, shedding light on linguistic nuances that were previously unknown to me. Overall, it was a thought-provoking and insightful experience that left me with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the complexities of the German language.