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!
3 thoughts on “Digitalisierung”
I really like what you did with those German examples; you often added some much-needed spice to them.
A couple of years ago, I would have agreed that the “L version” is totally unacceptable. Unfortunately, I think we are fighting a losing battle, with even many English publications using it; I have even heard English speakers (e.g. an engineering publication editor from the UK no less) insist on the differentiation you mention.
And that differentiation seems to have originated with Garnter in combination with SAP (and those two are very close). I think it was/is a very artificial thing to do, and it rather annoys me that it comes from that source (i.e. consultants/software vendors “deciding” on a new word and a new distinction), but it seems to be gaining momentum.
So many English words have made it into German, this seems to be a case of a German word influencing English.
I would also suggest a good way of avoiding the issue is to use “digital transformation” – which seems to be much more the buzzword in the Anglosphere than digitization/digitalization. It is also being used more frequently in German (i.e. as a result of direct translation from English, digitale Transformation).
Industry 4.0 is a similar case — I have seen it used ever more frequently, e.g. at a recent big-data conference in London by a native English speaker. A couple of years ago, i would have “translated” it as the 4th industrial revolution or similar. But not any more.
German economic prowess is becoming a force to be reckoned in English, too – am not terribly happy about it. But it is a reality.
I agree with you that the Siemens/SAP/Gartner neologism “digitalization” is gaining a certain momentum. Obviously, we both encounter it daily in the German-English bubble in which we spend our working lives. So perhaps it’s evolved from mere “Germish” to bona fide eurospeak. I suspect it’s much more acute for you in DE/UK, however. Here in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, I’ve asked many tech sector professionals “uninfected” by a second language what they understand “digitalization” to mean, and I’ve yet to hear anyone repeat the Siemens party line. (This is an ongoing linguistic poll that I will continue until I stop getting invited to social events …) Usually, they respond, “You mean digitization?” And as the Handeslblatt article points out, “digitization” is something we largely stopped talking about in the 1990s. That’s why I argue to my clients that using this kind of language is not effective for reaching international markets.
Thank you for this, Michael. I notice that the German Wikipedia article you referenced defines the term pretty narrowly. I think my main exposure to this word in English is from the BBC (as “digitalisation”); they have used it in articles and in podcasts such as Science in Action.