Wednesday 24 April 2013



While in  the UK or US an employee will normally write character references as addresses at the end of his CV when they want to leave a job , this is not the modus operandi in German speaking countries (Germany, Switzerland and Austria). Typically at the end of a contract, or when an employee resigns from his post, he or she is legally entitled to obtain a written reference which he or she also has full access to. When applying for jobs he then inserts the reference at the back of his application portfolio.

This represents a special challenge to the writer of such a reference, since there are strict legal guidelines regarding what he can write.

In Germany Section 109 of the Industrial Code (Gewerbeordnung) states

 § 109 Employers Reference
(1) The employee is entitled to a written reference at the termination of his/her employment relationship. The reference must at least contain (simple reference) details on the nature and duration of his/her employment. The employee may also demand that additional details be provided  regarding performance and conduct within the employment relationship (qualified reference).
(2) The reference must be clear and understandable. It must not contain any features or formulations that are intended to make statements about the employee other than that which follows from its appearance or wording.
(3) The reference may not be granted in electronic form.
In Switzerland the requirement is covered in the fifth part of the Civil Code under the Code of Obligations

Art. 330a
1. The employee may at any time request from the employer a reference
concerning the nature and the duration of the employment relationship,
the quality of his work and his conduct.

2. At the employee’s express request the reference must be limited to
the nature and duration of the employment relationship.
In Austria the obligation is covered under the General Civil Code (ABGB; § 1163) as well as the Employment Law (AngG; § 39). Unlike Switzerland and Germany however, one is only entitled to demand a simple reference.    


All this means that employees also have the right to return the reference for revision if there is anything in it that they don't like or feel is misrepresenting.

In an attempt to combat this problem a system of coded statements has evolved to indicate how an employee might have performed on his job. On their own they all appear positive, but what is actually meant can be something quite different.

Although in its native country the system has somewhat been compromised due to more and more people becoming aware of it, it still remains in use, and translators need to be aware of it. Moreover, the translator needs a clear understanding of the relationship between the client and the translator. For agencies, project managers also need to be aware of the issues and communicate exactly what is needed to the translator. If the client is a company who is screening employees, then they will definitely want to know what the intended meaning actually is. If on the other hand the client is a private individual who wants his applications portfolio translated, it is likely that he would have no major problem with a more literal style of translation.

It is also quite likely that an employer outside of these countries would prefer a telephone reference anyway, making the translation of a written reference a moot activity.

And not all testimonials are prepared in this coded manner. A good proportion are just written with honest praise. The translator also needs to be aware of this and check for the signs.  

Moreover, any certification of such a translation would also be complicated. A literal translation would almost certainly be adequate for a prospective employee, but  a screening employer should also be made aware of what these intended meanings are.


Here is an example of how the overall performance is conveyed

Der Arbeitnehmer hat die ihm übertragenen Aufgaben
stets zu unserer vollsten Zufriedenheit
stets zu unserer vollen Zufriedenheit
zu unserer vollen Zufriedenheit
zu unserer Zufriedenheit
im Großen und Ganzen zufriedenstellend
mit großem Fleiß und Interesse

The employee fulfilled the duties assigned to him
always to our utmost satisfaction
always to our full satisfaction
to our full satisfaction
to our satisfaction
overall to our satisfaction
with great diligence and interest

Excellent (1 or A)
Good (2 or B)
Satisfactory (3 or C)
Adequate (4 or D)
Poor (5 or E)
Unsatisfactory (6 or F)

I have put the english translations in for guidance only. However, even if they appear somewhat "germanified", I would tend to use these translations since they do provide some direct reference to the original. 

Often one needs experts to decode the meaning of many coded statements, the website provides a whole range of statements that are used to describe an employees performance, categorised according to grade, but even this list is not comprehensive. 

Here are some more examples:

GER: Sie zeigte stets Engagement für Arbeitnehmerinteressen außerhalb der Firma

ENG: She always showed commitment to worker's issues outside the company. 

WHAT IT MEANS: She went on strike

GER: Er trat engagiert für die Interessen der Kollegen ein

ENG: He was committed to representing the interests of his colleagues

WHAT IT MEANS: He was on the works committee (Betriebsrat)

GER: Bei Kunden war sie schnell beliebt

ENG: Customers quickly endeared themselves to her

WHAT IT MEANS: She admitted too many faults and had no negotiation skills

GER: Er war seinen Mitarbeitern jederzeit ein verständnisvoller Vorgesetzter

ENG: He was always an understanding superior to his deputies

WHAT IT MEANS: He could not assert himself and was not respected

GER: Sie hat mit ihrer geselligen Art zur Verbesserung des Betriebsklimas beigetragen

ENG: With her convivial manner she always helped to improve the atmosphere in the workplace

WHAT IT MEANS: She got drunk on the job

The statement „war bemüht“ (endeavouring) or "bestrebt war" (striven)  should never appear, with both being a sign of total incompetence. 

However, a harmless statement such as "er war sehr hilfsbereit" (he was very helpful) is in contrast an absolute praise. 

GER: Das Verhalten gegenüber Kollegen war einwandfrei

ENG: His conduct towards his colleagues was faultless

WHAT IT MEANS: His conduct towards his superiors on the other hand took a lot to be desired 

For employees with responsibilities over monetary assets the phrase "Ehrlichkeit" (honesty) should be mentioned.

The date of an employment reference might also harbour information. If it is anything other than the end or the ides of the month it could be a sign of an immediate dismissal.

As can be seen, not everything is what it seems to be. Any wrong formulation can have negative consequences for someone looking for a job without him even being aware of it.

An employer who doesn't want to misrepresent an individual as an alcoholic should therefore never state. 

"Er stand stets voll hinter uns!" (Intended: he always stood by us, Perceived: He always stood drunk behind us !!).


Dr. Julian P. Keogh

Tuesday 23 April 2013


Elsevier, part of the Reed Elsevier Group,  is one of the largest publishers in the medical and scientific journals sector. It publishes 250,000 articles a year in 2,000 journals, and its archives contain seven million publications. 

Elsevier is now offering an online translation service for scientists who wish to get their work published in English language peer reviewed journals.

Specifically it offers:
  • Translations into American or British English, by native speakers only 
  • Translations by PhD or PhD candidates selected according to field of study 
  • Double-checking of translations by successful academic authors
  • Return of all manuscripts within 11 business days

No publication guarantees are of course provided for any potential clients, but two points of their marketing strategy stand out above all:


The pricing strategy is extremely non linear. One normally expects a “bulk discount” on translation work, but Elsevier’s model seems to take this concept to an unusual new length. Small papers are comparatively much more expensive to translate than larger papers.  It is also not clear whether the word numbers would include reference lists (which of course should never be translated).  According to their scale, for small paper of 500 words (i.e. long abstracts or letters) the word rate would work out at almost 44 Euro cent per word (or even higher for shorter jobs). For a mid-sized paper of 5000 words the word rate would be 10 cent per word, while for a large review of 12000 words this drops to just 6.7 cent per word.    

This is an interesting pricing structure which arguably reflects the priorities that scientists entertain  when creating scientific or medical literature. Short communications are necessarily brief and concise, and take much more care to write than larger papers which often contain standard methodological descriptions and long reference lists. The impact of an abstract or short communication is often as great as that of a longer paper, which is often produced to “set in stone” results published in abstract form prior to a conference.  When translated into English, shorter papers often also have to conform to word number restraints.    



Although Elsevier offers no guarantees for publication, it does offer a money back guarantee for rejection on the basis of the quality of the language employed. No translator can be entrusted to providing a translation that will be accepted by an expert reviewer, it is the author and the reviewer who are experts and who can discuss the scientific validity or relevance of a particular manuscript. The translator can and should have no liability in this process, even if, as a translator with an additional scientific qualification, he may also be able to provide feedback of a scientific or technical nature. Anyone who understands the review process for peer reviewed journals also knows that there is still a residual risk that a perfectly well written paper may be rejected on the basis of “poor language”. The review process is only as good as the reviewer, and the reviewers are often delegated junior scientists whose strengths do not always lie in their use of the English language.  In my time as a scientist I often saw papers rejected on the basis of language from reviewers who themselves did not have the best command of the English language.

Presumably Elsevier has factored this into their calculations, and they can afford to provide such a guarantee even where rejections on the basis of language are unjustified upon closer inspection.

Currently, Elsevier only offers this service for Portuguese, Spanish and Chinese, but it will be interesting to see if it expands the service and model to other language combinations.  

Dr. Julian P. Keogh