Germans love to talk about Digitalisierung. It’s an ongoing national fixation, from the Chancellor on down to business leaders and the general public.
Defining the problem
The term presents quite a headache for translators, since Germans use it to mean so much more than any single term in English can encapsulate: see Andreas Kluth’s fantastic opinion piece in Handelsblatt from February 2018. Comparing the German Wikipedia entry to the English entry is also instructive for understanding how much more broadly Germans apply this term!
To accommodate all this extra meaning in English, the Germans have dreamt up the word “digitalization” and carefully delineated it from the much narrower usage of the actual English word digitization (as exhaustively outlined here). But this is not really English—it’s Germish. “Digitalization” is not something that native speakers of English say or think about or try to distinguish from digitization.
If you run a Google search for “digitalization” and dig deep into the results, you’ll find virtually all ultimately derive from German and other non-native European sources. This is a red flag for translators, pointing to a kind of pidgin business English that may work when Madrid speaks with Stockholm but is unlikely to be understood in London, New York, or Sydney. (It’s theoretically possible, of course, that “digitalization” as distinct from digitization may someday take root in English. Ask me again in five years. But I wouldn’t bet on it. New business jargon in English tends to incubate naturally from within the English-speaking world, not via transfusion from Berlin. The tail does not wag the dog.)
Finding a solution
So what to do, then?
- Replacing Digitalisierung 1:1 with digitization is too simplistic an approach and produces English copy that sounds decidedly foreign and does not convey the intended meaning.
- Replacing Digitalisierung 1:1 with “digitalization” works only in the fantasies of Siemens executives and produces English copy that is downright bewildering.
- What’s needed is a 1:n solution, replacing the broad scope of meaning encompassed by Digitalisierung with natural, native English phrases that actually convey the intended meaning.
First, a (rare) example in which digitalisieren actually means digitize:
Next, a few (much more typical) examples in which a more nuanced translation is required. Here’s my translation of a German press release headline:
Phrases that use digital transformation, digital innovation, or simply digital technology also work well for this sense:
Finally, a couple of examples where I found it best to recast:
“Digitalisierung der IT” simply cannot be taken at face value! A literal or machine translation would produce an English that means nothing to anyone. We need to divine what the author actually means (= “mit der zunehmenden Digitalisierung in der IT” = mit der stetigen Weiterentwicklung digitaler Technologie in der IT-Branche) and translate accordingly.
Note also: The example above highlights two different usages of the term IT in German: The first refers to what we call “tech” (= the tech industry), while the second refers to IT equipment.
Here I’ve cut through two German buzzwords using language that conveys the intended meaning in a way that business audiences in the English-speaking world will actually understand. (Industrie 4.0 and All Things 4.0 is the stuff of a future blog post!)
I’d love to hear from colleagues in my language combination about how you cope with this very tricky buzzword!