Taking Things Too Literally in German

Funny translations from German

Side profile shot of mature woman's face laughing
Don't take things too literal. Jonathan Storey-Stone@getty-images


Taking things too literally can be a problem at any time. But translating things too literally into German can be a disaster! One of the first lessons a language learner has to learn concerns the dangers of assuming that just because something is expressed a certain way in English, it will work the same way in German. As we'll see below, there is also the peril of "false friends" or false cognates—words that look like something they're not.

The German words "bald" (soon), "fast" (almost), "der Smoking" (tuxedo), and "der Slip" (briefs, panties) are just a few examples.

The article below is a guest contribution by Brigitte Dubiel, our former forum manager. So, time to learn about...

The Pitfalls of Literal Translation

By Brigitte Dubiel

Who has not read at one time or another about a sign, a notice, or an announcement that was translated literally (or just plain badly) from a foreign language into English? Two samples:

Sign on an elevator in a hotel in Romania:


On a visa application form in Hungary:


Since English and German are related languages, some people assume that translating is really easy, if necessary at all. A good example is the following excerpt from an article by Enno von Lowenstein, correspondent for the New York Times:

"...die Korrespondenten müssen Features kabeln, und beim Handling ihrer Computer-Terminals fit sein, ihr Password nicht vergessen, mit dem Scanner umgehen können ...die Disks pflegen, sich mit Bits und Bytes auskennen..."

In more than 20 years as a German teacher I have collected funny literal translations, sayings, and expressions from students that tickled my "Komischknochen." Maybe they will tickle your funny bone also.

Here are some examples (remember, these are false translations):

"Good" Excuses for School

  • Das schlägt die Hölle aus mir! 
    That beats the hell out of me.
  • Das schlägt mich! 
    Beats me.
  • Ich konnte meine Hausaufgaben nicht tun, weil meine Hundefrau vier Puppen bekommen hat.
    I couldn't do my homework because my (female) dog had four puppies.
    ="Puppen" are actually "dolls." Puppies are "Welpen."
  • Mein Großvater hatte am Sonntag gestorben, und ich musste zum Denkmalsdienst gehen.
    My grandfather had died on Sunday, and I had to go to the monument service.
    ="Denkmal" actually means "monument." The sentence should have read: "Mein Großvater war am Sonntag gestorben, und ich musste zum Gedenkgottesdienst gehen."
  • Ich hatte eine schlechte Kälte.
    I had a bad cold.
    ="Kälte" is "coldness," the opposite of heat. The ailment is called "eine Erkältung" or "ein Schnupfen" (masc.).
  • Wir haben uns verführt.
    We lost our way.
    =The word "verführt" means "seduced." The correct version would be: "Wir haben uns verfahren."

More examples on the next page...


Original article by: Hyde Flippo and Brigitte Dubiel

Edited on the 27th of June 2015 by: Michael Schmitz

Here are some more examples of taking things too literally in German.

Reports About Yesterdays Activities 

  • Gestern habe ich Frühstück gemacht. Zuerst legte ich zwei Eier in die Fahne... Yesterday I made breakfast. First I laid two eggs in the flag...
    =Obviously "Pfanne" (pan) was what was meant.
  • Ich ging gestern zu einer Beerdigung. Der Pastor sagte der Familie einige bequeme Wörter, dann war der tote Mann in die Grube gelegen.
    I went to a funeral yesterday. The pastor said a few comfortable words to the family, then the dead man was lain in the ditch/hole/pit.
    =Mistakes here include using "bequem" (comfortable) for "tröstend" (comforting). "Wörter" are individual words, as in a Wörterbuch (dictionary), while words in a speech or sentence are "Worte." The German for "was laid in his grave" should have been "wurde ins Grab gelegt."
  • Meine Kinder haben uns Nüsse gefahren.
    My children drove us nuts.

A Typical German Couple?

Of course, the risks of mistranslation also apply in the other direction. There is the story (perhaps true) about a German couple riding on a crowded double-decker bus in London. The woman found a seat on the lower level, her husband ended up on the upper deck. The conductor came by to check the tickets. The woman, trying to say: "Der Herr ist oben." (The gentleman is upstairs, i.e., he has the tickets), came up with the English phrase: "The Lord is upstairs."

The same (most likely fictitious) couple later went to their hotel room. If you know any Germans, you also know that they have a very strong aversion to drafts—in rooms, trains, automobiles ("Mach' das Fenster zu, es zieht!"). The woman, noticing this unhealthy condition, called room service and complained: "There is a train in our room! If you don't bring us another ceiling right away, we will undress!"

The next day she wrote a postcard to her neighbor in Germany. The card showed a picture of the hotel, with information about its location "in the outskirts of London." She translated this information for her friend: "Unser Hotel befindet sich in den Außenröcken von London." Later in the day, the hotel clerk asked if everything was all right now.

She answered: "Yes, everything is quite one-wall-free!"

If you're not sure about the reasons for the odd sentences above:

  •   "Zug" means "train" but also "draft" (and much more)
  •   "Decke" means "blanket" but also "ceiling" (covering)
  •   "ausziehen" means "to move out" but also "to undress" (with "sich")
  •   "Rock" means "skirt"
  •   "einwandfrei" means "perfect" but looks like "one/wall/free"

Übung macht den Meister - Practice makes Perfect

Now you may wish to try our Too Literal Quiz, a self-scoring quiz that lets you match up the English and German versions of some some "too-literal" translations like those above.

Noch eine Zugabe, nur zum Spaß. One more thing, just for fun. Auf einem Aufkleber (bumpersticker) gesehen:


Do you have other funny examples from your own experience? Share them with me and I will update this article with the best contributions. 

In case you just "licked blood" (=taste blood), we have a whole dictionary of false friends hier on about.com.

And here are even few more examples of "Übelsetzungen" on the Langenscheidt publishing house's homepage. Toytown is also a nice platform to find interesting stuff like this.


Original article by: Hyde Flippo and Brigitte Dubiel

Edited on the 27th of June 2015 by: Michael Schmitz