I had a job recently with one subject - Schraubtechnik. Dict and Linguee agree that this translates as "screwdriving technology". OK so here we have Technik again, which I have already whinged about. But, if you search for Schraubtechnik, you can even find a URL including the word. This particular web site shows very nicely what German engineers understand by this term and it is means tools to screw things together.

The manual tools to screw things together are:
Schraubenzieher - a screwdriver.
Schraubenschlüssel - a spanner or wrench.
For an English speaking engineer one tool is for a screw, the other for a nut (or the hexagonal head of a bolt): screwdriver and nut driver respectively.

This means that from the cloud of meaning associated with Schraubtechnik, only a fraction of its meaning has appeared in the "screwdriving technology" translation. Try asking a car mechanic to undo the wheel nuts on your car's wheels using a screwdriver and see what they say!

You can get in quite screwed up thinking about all this so I ended up using screwdrivers & nut drivers for my translation instead of "screwdriving technology".


Sometimes you just have to simplify things. Today I bumped into Bedienelement and the "mandatory" terminology entries included operating part, operating control, operating element.

I had to think back to an old film I once saw where Doris Day is on a flight and the pilot dies or is otherwise incapacitated and she has to land the plane herself. Can you imagine what a laugh it would have been if the air traffic controller in the tower had said to her "You will have to take the operating elements and land the plane yourself". That would not have been good for her career!

The correct translation for Bedienelemente is controls. Basta!


Maske is a word that is very prone to false friend translations by calling it “mask”. In English a mask is used to conceal things, like your face for instance. As usual, Wikipedia has a nice article to go with this picture telling us all about it. There is a sense where it might apply in the world of computers, when you have lots of data and only want to show part of it. Then you can use a verb and talk about “masking” the data, or masking bits.

The real translation however comes from Bill Gates, which is “window”. That does not translate as Fenster in German (something to lean out of when watching the world go by). German software engineers seem to have agreed that this is a Maske, presumably in that sense of hiding lots of data and only showing the important stuff.


Sometimes it takes a long time until you see the right translation for a word.

For ages I have been translating beachten with “note”. Today I bumped into someone else’s translation, using “heed”. I didn’t exactly bang my hand against the side of my head as I wear glasses and it might hurt, but I did think, duuuuh, dummy.

“Note” feels so passive, just look at that, you don’t need to do anything. I know that heed sounds somewhat old fashioned (yourdictionary offers this “heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory”), but it does have that active sense of, you must obey. Heed the safety instructions, don’t just note them.


Dichtheit is a funny one. Well I almost always laugh when I see it translated at “leaktightness” or sometimes “leakage-tightness”, it’s better to laugh than to cry.

This reminds me of the glass which is 50% full. Is it half empty or half full? Well German engineers do not expect leaks, so they check for Dichtheit. English engineers do expect leaks, so that is what they look for. Remember great British motor-bikes, even when brand new in showrooms they used to put metal trays out to catch the oil dripping from the (foolishly) vertically split gearbox casings.

I translate Dichtheit using leak embedded in a suitable sentence!


Maybe it’s because I worked in electronics for many years that I find the translations of Geber and its compound forms a bit annoying.

Today I bumped into Temperaturgeber, which my predecessor had translated as “temperature transmitter”. Sometimes you get “temperature sender”. They both express this idea of generosity. The kind sensor is giving you the value that it measured and, for German speakers, the important aspect emphasised in the word is the giving.

Well, English engineers are more interested in the sensitive side of things, what’s important to us is the sensing, so we call it a “sensor”, whether you are given the value or it is transmitted to you is of secondary interest, it is what it senses that’s important to us.


There is a pair of words kraftschluss and formschluss. (German Wikipedia article) These tidily express the (contrasting) ideas of passing force from one object to another by the use of friction or shape. For example, friction would be putting your finger on a piece of paper on your desktop and sliding it along. Shape would then be sticking the same finger in the handle of your tea cup to pick it up.

I found this sentence today.

Beim Ansprechen der Sicherheitsabschaltung bleibt jeweils die vorher eingeschaltete Gangstufe kraftschlüssig.

The contrast which these two words are meant to express is missing from this situation. What do you do? Use “friction locked” for kraftschlüssig? That would sound seriously weird to an Englishman. Do you assume that what the engineer meant was the previously unmentioned friction clutch remains connected. Or do you assume that the engineer just liked the word and stuck it in inappropriately?

Someone accused me of being a smart arse the other day for being so picky about the use of words. Or in this case, deciding that the engineer’s choice of words was poor and that I supposedly know better, although I have never seen the machine described? Well I am a smart arse, so this is what I did with kraftschlüssig.

If this safety cut-out trips, the previously engaged gear will remain engaged.


I feel that I see Visualisierung translated as visualisation far too often. I mean you can see the temptation, you only have to replace half of the letters, it’s less work and it sounds just right.

The only problem is that Visualisierung mostly means display and “visualise” mostly means imagine. So while German readers are invited to look at the display to see something, English speakers are invited to imagine the same stuff.

Maybe there’s even a touch of transatlantic trouble here. The Princeton definition includes the German idea, where the Cambridge version does not. Maybe that just shows that more German speakers emigrated to the US than did to the UK, but what is a poor translator to do?


Firma is a funny one. Of course it means company.

However when a German engineer writes something like (Fa. Wordwise), you don’t do anyone any favours by translating it as (company Wordwise).

What they often mean is (made by Wordwise).

It is just that Fa. is so delightfully short and the context ought to tell you what they really mean.


Technik is an unreliable if not exactly a false friend and is often inappropriately translated as technology. For example die Technik hat versagt.

Technik is not the same as Technologie. Wikipedia will help you with the difference. What would we do without Wikipedia!

I think that Technik is material and Technologie immaterial. So Technik is equipment or something else that you can bang your head against. Technologie is something that may make your brain hurt, but you won’t get bruises from it.


Some engineers love Lieferumfang

Installation, Integration und Inbetriebnahme der Achsbereichsüberwachungen ist Lieferumfang des AN.

I’m afraid that I cringe when I see “scope of delivery” used for this. All that the poor engineer was trying to say was that the contractor is responsible for all of that.

Sometimes its even just as simple as simple as “supplied” or “included”.

Die benötigten Batterien sind im Lieferumfang enthalten.

Not “The required batteries are included in the scope of supply.” Eeeek!

But “The required batteries are included”.


I must have seen “plug connector” a million times as the translation for Steckverbinder. Sometimes more is less and an average English engineer doesn’t need or want to know whether an electrical connection is made by screwing or pushing. The presumption is that you push plugs into sockets, or in the hermaphrodite world of car electrics you simply connect the connectors. Screwing cables together would do nasty things to the wires, not to mention the impossible complexity of numerous precision slip rings that would be required for screw fit multi-way connectors.

Just connector is quite enough.


I was astonished to find that Merker is an attempt by someone at Siemens to find a German word for “flag” in an IT context, in the best tradition of the Académie française.
This reminded me of my first working meeting in German, back in 1987. I was following everything until they suddenly starting talking about “flex”, which didn’t fit into the context and I completely lost the thread. I was quite miserable about my pathetic vocabulary until it eventually struck me that they were talking about “flags”. When pronounced with an educated German accent, this sounds like “flex”...


Fachabteilung is a word to promote the importance of what us slobby English just call a department. Someone has in all seriousness called this a “speciality department” in no less than 2 online dictionaries. As a Fachmann is an expert, I suppose the idea in Fachabteilung is that the department exclusively employs experts and an Abteilung is then implicitly full of idiots?

Konstrukteur & Design

Wikipedia shines here. The German entry for Konstrukteur correctly provides a link to the English site’s design engineer page. The only slight problem is that these two terms only correspond for mechanical engineering. German electrical or electronic design engineers usually use Dipl. Ing. Elektrotechnik / Elektronik to fill out their business cards. See Berufsbezeichnungen. Note that Germans have adopted Design as a German word, but they currently consider it to be exclusively arty-farty. Should you get an interview as a designer at Siemens they won’t be asking you about characteristic impedance, but they may well ask what you think of Shiro Kuramata.


Image credit: Robert McLassus
Ho hum, Google can find 13,000 instances of Betriebsmedium, which some contributor to Leo has reasonably called operating medium. Wikipedia defines this as “In industrial engineering, a gaseous, vaporous, fluid or shapeless solid material that plays an active role in manufacturing processes ... “ Eeek. I just did a job for radiator valves where the client used Betriebsmedium, which is actually water. So I translated it as water, as I wasn’t sure what a British plumber would make of operating medium.

I was then entertained to read that calling a spade a spade is actually based on a mistranslation...


Protokoll is one of those words that often suffers at the hands of tired translators. Not just bashing in “protocol” requires some thought. The German Wikipedia article (Hurra for Wikipedia!) uses 1437 words to explain its various meanings. My problem is that automated German test equipment often puts test results into a Protokoll, which an English engineer of my generation calls a report. Maybe I´m too King Canute-like here and, as the tide of German-made test equipment circulates around the planet, industriously producing “protocols”, this usage may become common enough to be considered correct.


Vorliegen is another one of those fun words to spoil word by word translations.

The list of suggested translations from the various online dictionaries is not too bad - to be there, to be present, to have arrived, to be available, to be existent, to be on hand, be, be available, be known. However, one to one word translations don’t always work, despite the impression that you can build up when using terminology databases. How about this nice example:
  • Es liegen noch keine Ergebnisse vor.
  • The results haven't come in yet.
I have this picture of two amoeba, one English and one German, each representing the idea. Sometimes they overlap completely, sometimes they overlap a bit and sometimes there is only the one sort of amoeba. It would be nice if translation databases could deal with that.


Bearbeiter is one of those German words that is very unpleasant for translators into English, as it quite clearly means “the person who does the work” but that is a phrase that would make English native speakers giggle if ever any translator were foolish enough to put that in writing.

The list of suggested translations from the various online dictionaries certainly makes me giggle - adapter, reviser, arranger, compiler, processor, adaptationer (sic), issuer, originator, authorised person, authorised user, agent, editor, person in charge, one who abridges. (See a weakness of online dictionaries)

This is where you need full context to work out exactly what the customer means. I have just done an Excel word list where this appeared without any context at all. For health reasons I have stopped tearing out my hair, so I had to guess, using the name of the customer and the other individual words for context.

What do you do?


Messwert is one of those words where you can translate too much. Today I found „measuring value“ in the memory. In English it is just „measurement“. You don’t need value unless there is possible confusion in the context concerned about whether you are talking about the measurement process itself or the value that it produces.


Datenpflege sounds terrific in German, you are caring for your poor data, looking after it, nurturing it, maintaining it. Translate this as "edit". Sorry, us English-speakers are cold, heartless brutes as far as data is concerned.


Hochwertig is a really popular marketing word in German. In a technical context, I don’t think that you can often say "high value", which could be interpreted as expensive, so I usually stick "high quality" in. Maybe it’s me, what do you do?


This is a tricky subject. The crowning glory of years spent learning your trade for a German speaker is their job title. You will find plenty of Wikipedia articles about Berufsbezeichnungen, which shows the importance placed on this in contemporary German society. For an Englishman, this seems oddly proud and excessively precise. "Oh, I work in electronics" may be fine for a London cocktail party, but German clients will be devastated if you can’t produce an "official" translation for their job title (see berufe-lexikon) and will seriously doubt your competence.

I must however admit, that when trying to find a qualified (non-cowboy) electrician, plumber or carpenter in the UK, it would be nice if some things were as clear there as they are in the German-speaking world.


Peter Macdonald
Some words and ideas that can be precisely expressed in German require a long explanation in English. Whenever I go to the cinema in Berlin, I have to be ready to hear Sitzriese from behind, which always sounds like a curse. This is because I am comparitively tall sitting down - i.e. I have a long back. I have found a medical term for this which is "hypomorph", which no normal cinema-goer in England is likely to know, they would just move, muttering quietly to themselves. Berliners being Berliners, I only escape Sitzriese if the seats behind me stay empty until the lights go down.