Working with a translator or interpreter in Germany
What is one of the biggest challenges when moving to a different country? You guessed it: the language barrier. A translator or interpreter can help people overcome exactly these kinds of barriers. Daniel Oesterle looks at what translators and interpreters do, and when you might need to hire one in Germany.
Before we get into when and how to work with a translator or interpreter in Germany, let us quickly define our terms. The distinction between an interpreter and a translator is simple, but it is something that people tend to get “wrong” a lot in everyday usage.
What is the difference between a translator and an interpreter?
It may not make much of a difference in most conversations, but when you actually need to hire a language professional, it’s a good idea to ask the right person. You wouldn’t be keen on a dentist doing your colonoscopy, and, presumably, neither would they.
So, what exactly is the difference?
The two professions are, of course, related, but they are two different occupations that require a different set of skills and tools. Still, there is also a lot of overlap, which is why some (but not all) people end up doing both.
Translators are people who work in written translation. They use computers, software and dictionaries to translate written texts - anything from laws and instruction manuals to works of poetry. The German word for translator is “Übersetzer” (masculine) or “Übersetzerin” (feminine).
Interpreters, on the other hand, specialise in oral translation. Whether at a conference, in a courtroom or at a doctor’s appointment, they listen to what people say and repeat it - as closely as possible - in a different language. The term “speech interpreter” gives a good idea of what the job entails.
To accurately explain to somebody who doesn’t know the language what a speaker is saying, you cannot just translate word for word, you have to get to the meaning and thought processes behind the words. In this sense, it is a bit like interpreting a poem. Sometimes you have to venture an educated guess on what the speaker was meaning to say.
Interpreters often use a combination of pen and paper and multimedia high tech, but sometimes all they use is their voice (along with their brains, eyes and ears). The German word for interpreter is “Dolmetscher” (masculine) or “Dolmetscherin” (feminine).
When should you hire a professional translator or interpreter?
Whether you are launching a website or starting a business in Germany, or simply looking for some help getting settled into life in another country with a new language and culture, hiring a professional translator or interpreter can save you lots of headaches and ensure smooth communication.
In some cases, using a qualified translator or interpreter can be mandatory.
You may be required to use a certified translator for:
- Documents used in legal transactions, court proceedings and lawsuits
- Documents needed for a notarised business transaction
- Diplomas and certifications for job applications or to get your foreign degree or professional qualification recognised in Germany
- Foreign birth certificates, death certificates or marriage certificates required by German authorities
You may be required to use a certified interpreter for
- Civil weddings: If the Standesbeamter (civil registrar), i.e. the civil servant responsible for officiating and registering marriages, determines that you or your future spouse are not sufficiently fluent in German, they will require you to use a sworn interpreter for a language in which you have a high level of proficiency. This does not necessarily have to be your first language - especially if your first language is very rare.
- Notarised business transactions: For instance, for real estate purchases / sales
- Police investigations: If you have been detained or summoned by the police as a suspect in an ongoing investigation, you have not only got a right to a lawyer, but also to an interpreter.
- Lawsuits: Whether you are a defendant or witness in a criminal case, or the plaintiff or respondent in a civil case, the court will arrange for an interpreter to be present whenever necessary. As a witness or defendant in a criminal case, you are entitled to an interpreter or translator at no cost to you. This applies to all court proceedings as well as any meeting with (potential) defence lawyers.
What to expect when hiring an interpreter or translator
Interpreting usually happens under immense time pressure. The interpreter either speaks while the speaker continues talking (simultaneous interpreting) or starts speaking immediately after the speaker has finished a portion of what they are saying (consecutive interpreting).
Either way, there is not much time to look up words or even think about an expression for a long time. This means that interpreting requires a lot of up-front preparation. That is also why, in some cases, interpreters might charge extra for prep time - in addition to travel time and hours on site. An interpreter’s hourly fee can be anywhere between 50 to 100 euros or more, depending on the circumstances.
Translators, on the other hand, usually do not charge by the hour or day, but per word, or per line. Especially for certified or legal translations, translators in Germany commonly charge a fee per standard line, i.e. 55 characters including spaces. The typical price for a translation will be somewhere between 80 cents to two euros per line or 10 to 20 cents per word, again depending on a number of factors.
One thing to keep in mind is that interpreters are communication facilitators. You should not expect them to double as tour guides, chauffeurs, personal assistants, or legal experts - unless this has been expressly agreed upon.
However, any professional interpreter will be courteous and helpful, supporting you in finding the right kind of additional services. And some might even be excited to show you around town or offer some useful insider tips! Always make sure to clarify the task and ask for the estimated cost in advance to avoid unpleasant surprises.
What types of translators and interpreters are there in Germany?
Certified translations can only be provided by an Urkundenübersetzer:in. The exact title may vary depending on the state (Bundesland). You can find an official directory of all sworn legal translators online.
Court interpreting and other legal interpreting services should be carried out by a “Verhandlungsdolmetscher:in” or “Gerichtsdolmetscher:in. The exact title may vary depending on the state and / or the underlying law. Just this year, a new federal law meant to simplify things (GDOlmG) has come into effect but is currently making matters even more complicated. You can find an official directory of all sworn legal interpreters online.
Outside of these two specially regulated categories of “official” translators and interpreters, anyone can call themselves “Übersetzer” or “Dolmetscher”, as these are not regulated professions in Germany (unlike doctors or lawyers, for example). Serious translators or interpreters will either be state-certified (Staatlich geprüft / anerkannt) or have a relevant academic degree or solid professional references.
How do I find the right language service provider?
For official legal translation and interpreting, your go-to source should be the public “Gerichts-Dolmetscher” directory. It is jointly-operated by the justice departments of the 16 states of the Federal Republic of Germany. There are several reputable associations of translators and interpreters (e.g. BDÜ, DVÜD, ATICOM, UNIVERSITAS Austria), which publish searchable directories of their members on their websites. There are also regional associations specialising in legal translation and interpreting such as VVU (Baden-Württemberg), VBDÜ (Bavaria) & VVDÜ (Hamburg).
Keep in mind that not every qualified freelancer is necessarily a member of one of the professional associations. A quick web search for “übersetzer [language] [city]” or “dolmetscher [language] [city]” should turn up some decent results, too. But exercise care, especially when using marketplaces such as fiverr.com, and make sure that the freelancer has the necessary qualifications for the assignment.
There are also many translation agencies that operate nationally or locally. While they generally work with qualified freelancers and can take some of the hassle out of searching for a translator or interpreter (which may be especially helpful for larger or more complex assignments), keep in mind that they will want a piece of the cake, too. That means the agency takes a cut of the total fee for their services, which will either result in a lower payout for the freelancer or a higher price for you - compared to hiring a freelancer directly.
Daniel Osterle is a certified and sworn English interpreter for court proceedings and legal affairs in Germany, and also offers certified translations of official documents, corporate communications and marketing materials. If you’re in need of a translator or interpreter, get in touch.