Language in Student Housing – Kim Brägger


Switzerland is a country of many cultures, featuring four official national languages and many more unofficial languages that are spoken each day. Large cities like Geneva, Bern, Zürich or Basel house a large number of immigrants, guest workers and transfer students, especially Basel as the city borders on Germany and France. The University of Basel has employed and enrolled many people with migration backgrounds whose first language might not be German. In such a case, most organisational matters are also communicated in English in addition to the original German version. However, since perfect translations are impossible and not every company in need of translating important information can hire a professional translator, some mistakes or odd phrasing can occur in the translated version. This blogpost will look at such odd phrasing in emails sent by a student housing organisation to its tenants. While this post is presenting the syntactical aspect, the post of Isabella Mey is focusing on the word choice of the same emails. These posts were written in collaboration. I used to be a tenant of that organisation and I have collected twelve emails with German and English versions which did not include private information for Isabella and I to take a closer look at. The organisation itself will not be named. All twelve emails were sent to me, among other tenants, between Summer 2021 and Spring 2022.

The first email presented is about the recurring blocking of the main entrance area with throwaway furniture and about graffiti in the elevator. The section about graffiti is what is of interest to this topic.

The first thing to catch the eye is the difference in length. The German version is almost twice as long but the general meaning is the same in both versions. The German version is a bit more formal and elaborate while the English translation is concise. While the English translation is technically correct, it feels awkward to read with the arrangement of sentence fragments. A more ideal version could be: “Lately, the cleaning personnel repeatedly had to remove graffiti from the elevator cabin. Please note that this also increases costs for [organisation] and will lead to an increase in rent”. One could stick closer to the German version as well, though for this example, the English translation was a bit optimised.

Another example is the email about the annual kitchen deep cleaning.

In this example, both versions are around the same length. While once again, the translation is not wrong, it is odd to read. Aside from the word choice and spelling mistakes, the syntax is a bit off. The key point, besides the typing mistake, is fine syntactically, as is the first half of the second key point. The second part of the second key point is weirdly phrased.

While the tense they used is not wrong, a perhaps better translation could be: “If the cupboard is not open, it will not be cleaned”. The third key point is also a matter of word choice, but this post is focusing on syntax so the wording will be ignored in this case. The comma is unnecessary and the part in brackets either misses a “such” or should be reworded. A possible version could be: “Important: Please check all the food before you take it out of the kitchen/cupboard for any kind of pests (such as moths)”. One could change a few more things to phrase it a bit more eloquently.

There are other emails that could be improved with minor adjustments, often a change of tense, moving a particle elsewhere in a sentence or removing an unnecessary comma. Most of these changes are minor but could improve the overall impression these translations give off because it is apparent that the translations were not made by a professional. Knowing how much rent costs a month and how many rooms this organisation rents out to students, tenants might expect them to hire a person whose English is on a higher level. It may not be completely necessary but it would improve the overall image the company has based on these emails alone but would also show that people who do not speak German are equally welcome to rent rooms from this organisation and deserve the same standard of communication that German speakers do.

by Kim Brägger