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Swiss-German translation: different and proud of it

William Tell was invented by a German and set to music by an Italian. Perhaps that is precisely why he encapsulates the Swiss attitude so aptly. No one can deny that Switzerland has a lot in common with its neighbours, yet it remains resolutely independent. So, if you want to win the hearts of German-speaking Swiss with your content, you will need a Swiss-German translation.

Before starting to talk about Swiss German, we must first define what we mean by it. The term actually covers all of the various spoken German dialects in Switzerland. Swiss people have a very deep-seated attachment to their own dialect. It strengthens their sense of belonging and serves as a means of differentiating themselves from Germany, whose influence sometimes seems overpowering.

Dialect promotes solidarity

When we talk about a Swiss-German translation, however, we are referring to its written form, known as “Swiss Standard German”, which is a variety of the standard German language. The differences – or Helvetisms, as they are called – are mainly noticeable in the vocabulary, but can also influence grammar and orthography.

The variations are not extreme, but Swiss people have a highly attuned awareness of them. If you want to address a Swiss-German audience, you definitely need to be familiar with these differences.

Small but subtle differences

Swiss-German vocabulary is strongly flavoured by two of Switzerland’s other official languages, French and Italian. A bike is a “Velo”, we walk on a “Trottoir”, and wait on the “Perron” for the train, which we need a “Billett” to board. We also eat “Peperoni”, “Zucchetti” and “Poulet”. This link provides more details and examples of Helvetisms for anyone interested. Our blog post “Eine Sprache für sich: Schweizerdeutsch und Helvetismen” gives an even more enlightened look at the subject for any German-speaking readers.

And of course, Mr and Ms Swiss never use the letter “ß”, which is standard practice in Germany. It doesn’t even exist on a Swiss keyboard. Swiss Standard German has a penchant for the dative case and linking S, and articles and plural forms do not always follow the standard linguistic model. Our German neighbours sometimes display a condescending or amused attitude towards our language, which makes the Swiss waver between developing an inferiority complex and reacting with Tell’s defiance.

Swiss-German translation: not as simple as it seems

But what does all this imply for a company that wants to reach potential customers in Switzerland? First and foremost: all German is not the same. If you want to be successful in Switzerland, you have to adapt your German-language content to match the local context.

The Swiss Review magazine learned this the hard way a few years ago, when its content always seemed somehow slightly “off”. Read more about what happened in our “Best Case Swiss Review: what’s in a name?” blog post. Swiss people want their unique identity to be taken seriously. If you can achieve that, you have already won half the battle.

Do you want to tap into the Swiss market? SwissGlobal is the right partner to help you do it. We combine enhanced Swiss quality with an extensive global reach. Our team is very familiar with the ins and outs of Switzerland and tailors your communication to reach a specific target audience. Contact us to receive an offer with absolutely no obligation.

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