Privacy and language in German localization

Perhaps no other quote has come to explain the localization industry better than what Willy Brandt, chancellor of West Germany from 1969 to 1974, is widely quoted as saying: “If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.”

It is also no surprise that this statement is about German — the language of Europe’s economic powerhouse — and Germany — the largest market in the European Union. Germany straddles Western and Eastern Europe, and all this has helped make German a “no brainer” target language for any company marketing products or services in the EU. But while Germany may be traditionally among the first EU markets to enter, and it may seem like a well-trodden path, there are a lot of factors that can make or break your German success…and some are not so obvious. Let’s look at a few of these.

Data localization

Few countries may care about privacy more than Germany. Data privacy and protection (Datenschutz) are hot topics, and consumers take very seriously the way their personally identifiable information is collected, managed, stored and shared — and how much they are actually willing to provide. This is one of the reasons why, for instance, Google Street View has only very limited availability there.

Driven by this sentiment, Germany has beefed up its own Federal Data Protection Act, emerged as a strong advocate of strict data protection regulations at the EU level, and worked hard to shape the new rules that govern data transfers between the United States and the EU.

For 15 years, these rules were based on the Safe Harbor Privacy Principles, which effectively allowed US companies that store personal data from EU citizens to self-certify their compliance with the EU Data Protection Directive in order to be able to transfer and store such data on their servers in the US.

This is significant given the huge and ever-growing amounts of data stored in the cloud, and the fact that the internet is dominated by US companies, and so most of these servers tend to be based in the US. Relying on data transfers across the Atlantic is more efficient than setting up independent data centers in Europe, and certainly the preferred way for smaller organizations.

But these principles were declared invalid by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in October 2015, following a case brought by an Austrian citizen, and his complaint regarding Facebook transferring his personal data from the company’s European HQ in Ireland to servers in the US.

This surprising decision has forced the roughly 4,400 companies that had relied on the principles, including technology giants such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, IBM and Salesforce, to overhaul their transatlantic operations. Many — from Amazon Web Services to Microsoft Azure and Office 365 — have opted for so-called “model contract clauses.” While these still face potential legal challenges, they are standard provisions defined and approved by the European Commission and so provide a firmer footing.

A replacement data-sharing agreement was hammered out between the US and the EU in early 2016 in the form of the so-called EU-US Privacy Shield. This agreement went into effect on July 12, 2016, and is designed to give companies the legal right to transfer data to the US from the EU. This is based on stronger obligations on US companies, their regular reviews by the US Department of Commerce and defined dispute resolution mechanisms.

However, this is not the end of the story in Germany, where there is a strong drive to encourage, if not yet legally require, storing Germans’ personal data within the country. According to a recent survey by KPMG and Bitkom, the German digital trade association, 83% of German companies expect their cloud provider to have its data centers exclusively in the country, while 74% want them to be located somewhere in the EU.

This data localization requirement goes beyond — or rather against — the EU strategy to create the Digital Single Market (DSM), one digital market covering all EU member states with no regulatory barriers for online goods or services across Europe. Right now, only 4% of online services in the EU are cross-border, while 42% are national and 54% are with US-based online services.

DSM aims to end unjustified geo-blocking (think pan-EU simship release as a rule), modernize copyright rules to provide wider online availability of content across the EU (think the same content on Netflix available in all EU countries), and facilitate cross-border ecommerce.

But while the DSM is a more distant objective, companies go to great lengths to meet current German data location requirements. For instance, Amazon Web Services (AWS) built data centers in two EU locations – Dublin, Ireland, and Frankfurt, Germany — and offers their corporate customers the option to run AWS and store data exclusively on German soil. Similarly, Microsoft opened their first cloud data centers in Germany, what they call Microsoft Cloud Germany, in September 2016.

To assuage any concerns by their German customers, Microsoft actually went one step further, and has a German company, Deutsche Telekom’s subsidiary, T-Systems International, acting as a data trustee. This means that this German entity controls access to customer data stored on the servers in Germany, not Microsoft. This is a potential game-changer, since it shows that what really matters is perhaps not so much where data is located, or how encrypted it is, but rather who controls the information.

Besides such big-ticket decisions as physical data localization, every company operating in Germany would do well to understand and comply with the strict Federal Data Protection Act, and communicate how and why they intend to use personal data and where it is stored. Clearly, this communication should be in German.

Going really local

Privacy concerns are also behind the fact that some three-quarters of German shoppers prefer to use credit cards when making online purchases. But while credit card payments are on the rise, the preferred method of online payment is still by invoice (Kauf auf Rechnung), together with other non-credit card payments such as SEPA (Single Euro Payments Area) direct debit, SOFORT Überweisung (an online payment system now owned by Klarna of Sweden) and Giropay (an online payment system using direct online transfers from bank accounts).

Invoices for online payments are normally due in 14 days from delivery, which is very generous by global standards. In a similar vein, cash-on-delivery, which is so popular in many other European countries, is used much less, and personal checks practically don’t exist.

One thing that German consumers demand and expect as standard is a no-questions return period of 14 days. Long the default option in Germany, this later became a consumer right across the EU, with buyers having the right to cancel and return online orders within 14 days, for any reason and with no justification needed.

Making your German sound German

How do you make sure your German localization is just right? German is one of the languages that tends to borrow foreign words — these days mostly English — fairly liberally. But a heavy use of English words in German sentences is mockingly called “Denglisch” (Deutsch and Englisch). It may amuse some, but it bemuses many others who prefer the more traditional ways, and there are popular movements to resist this trend.

While some loanwords have become fully standard in German, some are more or less nuanced equivalents of other established German words, while others are new or simply generational and preferential, and only time will tell if they get more universally accepted.

Unlike in other countries such as France, there is no one all-encompassing institution governing the language use in German-speaking countries, though there are groups such as the Council for German Orthography (Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung) and the Institute of German Language (Institut für Deutsche Sprache). The appropriate approach to using English loanwords in German is really driven by the target audience, the demographics and by extension the industry and the specific context.

The more technical the content is, the more likely it is to contain more specialized language, meaning normally more English words. But it is very easy to not get this right. For instance, even content from providers of routine services such as mobile or broadband can be littered with so many Anglicisms that some German users may find it difficult to understand.

Worse still, for others, is the slow creep of English grammar and syntax into German. The Institut für Deutsche Sprache has published guidelines for the formation and incorporation of neologisms, but these are not always followed in real life. This may apply to verb conjugation or even fixed phrases such as “it makes sense.” While the standard German phrase would be es hat Sinn (it has sense), some Germans started to say es macht Sinn, a direct translation from English makes.

Similarly, it is very easy to form German verbs from English by adding a suffix, such as -en (to debug: debuggen, to chat: chatten) or -ieren (to shock: schockieren). However, while the correct past participle would be shockiert, one may increasingly encounter the new form geschockt, which uses the traditional German ge- normally added to native verbs, and omits the ending -ieren, which has been traditionally added to loan words. In both cases, the underlying driver is the desire to appear more casual, colloquial and akin to English expressions. Such an approach may be useful in some localization scenarios, but is certainly not the general rule.

There is the general trend towards a more friendly, conversational, casual language style, and many global brands have adopted this in their products over the past years. But this does not always transfer easily into German and is not the universal approach.

It is very easy to get your style wrong in German as you translate or transcreate your content. Some companies may, for instance, be tempted to embrace the informal second person singular pronoun du form in their communication, as opposed to the formal second person singular or plural pronoun Sie, but it pays to tread with caution and calibrate the tone to the given target audience in Germany.

Looking at a few examples from the broad travel industry, it is easy to see a pattern. The Sie form is used online by companies such as Expedia,, TripAdvisor, and HomeAway, while Airbnb, Kayak, Flixbus or Uber use the informal form du.

Those appealing to a broader audience are safer with the more formal form of address, and that is certainly the case also with typical product localization. But those aiming to appeal to an audience that might be perhaps put off by the formal style can make effective use of the du style.

Others may prefer the politer capitalized form of Du. This form is still often used in writing, as in letters, although its use has been discouraged in the German orthography reform of 1996 (Rechtschreibreform).

In either case, the use of Sie/du is always situational, and while companies may use the informal du in their marketing content, they would still revert to the formal Sie in other contexts, such as their terms and conditions, or even an online shopping basket. So in reality, it is normal to see a mixed approach.

Targeting all 95 million native speakers

There are some differences in Standard German as used in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, mostly in style and syntax, but other than cultural specifics, much of the vocabulary is the same. When it comes to localizing content in general areas, there is normally no need to cater to individual variants. But marketing, social media or any other types of content that aim to address users more directly, to “touch their heart,” may need to be adopted for the different variants.

In general, terms related to finance, sports, culture or administration may be different and need to be verified if they can be used across locales. There is no clear division between the locales that would be valid across all areas. Two languages may overlap in one area and differ in another. In practice, adaption from one variant to another is fully acceptable, separate translations from scratch are not needed.

Few other languages may enjoy such high volumes of localization as German. But Germany is a country that changes rapidly, and local consumer requirements and the language as such change with the times as well. Failing to get the local specifics right might give others the feeling of schadenfreude. Come to think of it, there might even be a German word for that.