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Background

My question pertains specifically to the German Arbeitszeugnis. A similar discussion (though operating functionally in the opposite direction) was asked here for reference for those unfamiliar with the Arbeitszeugnis.

I am an American university student and have been conducting an internship in Germany this summer for a large, international company. Looking forward, however, I plan to remain in the US for future employment, so this question is not about the German Arbeitszeugnis practices.


The Issue

As a result of my employment, I recieved an Arbeitszeugnis (AZ), which is (as far as I've been made aware) functionally equivalent to a Recommendation Letter.* The letter itself demonstrates my employer's satisfaction with my work, as well as illustrating my role during my internship within the department as a whole. As such, I would like to include the letter in my future employment.

However, since the AZ is intended to be used for German employment, the entire document itself is written in German. Since I will be seeking US employment, and I don't want to trust my chances of employment to an employer using Google Translate (which is, in my experience, simply awful at translating German), how should I go about translating this document to English?

I can read, write, and speak German with high proficiency, though it is a learned language and I would not consider myself completely fluent, so my first thought is to translate the document myself and include both my translation and the original document with some sort of notice that the English version is merely a translation and may not be perfectly accurate. However, I feel as though this could open me up to certain legal implications if I am employed as a result of the letter in the case of any inaccuracies, even though I would fully intend to translate the letter as accurately as possible. Is a simple notice that the translation may contain inaccuracies sufficient? Am I opening myself up to legal ramifications by translating it myself? Should I be having the document translated at all? If there are legal concerns, I would consider hiring an independent translator, but since I feel I am perfectly capable of translating the document myself, I would prefer to avoid the expense unless absolutely necessary.


*- The AZ holds much more significance and legal standing in German employment than a Recommendation letter does in America, but this question is specific to US employment, where I've been told an AZ can be used as a recommendation letter.

  • @ChristopherEstep "Letter of Recommendation." I editted my title to clarify. I've seen it posted here often so thought it was recognized short-hand. Apologies! – RGA Jul 26 '16 at 13:35
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    Regardless of any legal considerations, there's a matter of appearance: you are an interested party. Think about how you'd react if you were the hiring manager and somebody gave you a recommendation letter in a language you don't read accompanied by his own translation. – Monica Cellio Jul 26 '16 at 15:19
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I have relatives in Eastern Europe, and have had to get documents translated officially all the time. We employ the services of a notary - they translate, and sign/seal the translation as official.

I just Googled "Berlin official document translation" and several results came up right away. Simply find an official translator, or public notary in your area. Their services are not typically very costly.

Note: you can also get translations such as these done online, or state-side. I know for a fact that there's lawyer's offices here in Canada which specialize in document translations in various languages (the advantage of such a diverse population). It is absolutely impossible that you wouldn't be able to find such a service in the USA

Now, as others have pointed out, a letter of reference is a not typically considered an "official" document in North America. If you're using it to prove employment history (or some other official purpose) then I would get it officially translated. If you're simply using it to pad your portfolio then you could simply have a friend translate the letter for you.

For example, I have 3 or 4 letters of reference from profs, or former managers, which I include in my portfolio - most people don't bother giving them a second look, althought everyone notices them. So for your own purposes a notarized copy may not be necessary, however the seals and stamps may impress people.

  • +1 Damn good answer. Covering both the linguistic and legal issues. – Richard Says Reinstate Monica Jul 26 '16 at 13:41
  • Have you done this merely for the sake of thoroughness, or is there some specific legal concern that you are personally aware of? – RGA Jul 26 '16 at 13:41
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    @RGA - I have had to provide government agencies with official translations of birth certificates, school diplomas, medical records, etc. Simply translating these things yourself is not acceptable to them - it needs to be an official translation. There is actually also a higher level version of a notarized translation which is officially verified and endorsed by the state, but it is very costly, and difficult to obtain. I've only ever obtained notarized copies, and it's been good enough for the Government of Canada. For an LoR a notarized translation is more than sufficient. – AndreiROM Jul 26 '16 at 13:44
  • @AndreiROM edit adds much appreciated nuance. Thanks! – RGA Jul 26 '16 at 13:54
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    Also remember that in Germany, the Arbeitszeugnis as of today is practically worthless, as there there are laws that say it's not allowed to be negative. There are public secret codes of how to write bad stuff that sounds good. Er ist sehr gesellig for example doesn't mean he's good with people, but rather he was drunk often. If you don't like their wording, you can fight it until it sounds positive, up to a point where you write your own document. A lot of companies will not even look at those things any more as they don't offer value. But internationally, that might not be known. – simbabque Jul 27 '16 at 9:07
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You're not going to realistically open yourself up to a lawsuit by translating it yourself. But a third-party translation will hold more weight with a potential employer.

American employers aren't going to care much about a letter of recommendation in the first place. They are going to be particularly likely to discount one from a foreign country where they aren't going to be aware of what the letter implies-- the AZ is always going to be positive. A German employer can probably read between the lines to infer the difference between "did just enough to remain employed" and "best employee we've ever had". An American employer is going to have a very hard time doing that unless they happen to have a background in German employment norms. But an applicant-provided translation of such a document is going to be all but worthless because it would be far, far too easy for an applicant to shade the meaning of the terms. Knowing that the document has to be positive, it's easy for an applicant to pick slightly more emphatic words to eliminate whatever nuance was present in the original. A third-party official translation at least eliminates the last of these issues.

Given that it is very unlikely that the AZ will be of any real use to you in your American job hunt, I probably wouldn't bother to have it translated at all. If it comes up in an interview (reference checks are generally one of the last steps), you can certainly offer to get the AZ translated. But I would doubt that many potential employers would take you up on that.

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In the United states, people take Letters of recommendation with a large grain of salt and they really are not as important as they are in European countries. And as long as your translation is a gross misinformation, I don't think it will be an issue who translates the document. If you provide the original (in Deutsch) document as well as the English translation attached to it, if the employer is in doubt, they can find someone to verify the accuracy of your translation. And unless you are going for a German <--> English translation as your career path, I don't think you have anything to worry about.

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    "... as long as your translation is not a gross misinformation..."? – Dan Pichelman Jul 26 '16 at 13:56
  • Yeah.. sometimes people get "cute" and resort to so-called word play. If a word or a phrase can be interpreted in different ways, they chose the best that fits their purpose, rather than what the person writing the letter intended to make a point of. You can get away with some minor word playing but if you do it all over, that won't look good. It was the point I was trying to make. Such as if you get a letter which states that your apprenticeship/internship was completed as satisfactory, do not put it down as a rock-star performance. – MelBurslan Jul 26 '16 at 14:01
  • That makes sense. It also makes sense that when translating from one language to another that certain judgement calls must be made, and it's important that the translator attempt to remain as neutral as possible. I was questioning that particular sentence in your answer - to me it reads like you meant to say "as long as your translation does not contain gross misinformation", but I may be mistaken. – Dan Pichelman Jul 26 '16 at 14:39
  • Letters of recommendation are not only unimportant but completely unknown in some European countries, demanding a Zeugnis the German way would even be shocking and illegal. This is really a German thing, not a European thing (to be perfectly accurate, you will find similar practices in a few other central European countries). – Relaxed Jul 27 '16 at 12:50

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