Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Terminology in the construction industry (German/English)

Terminology is more than just words. Dictionaries and glossaries are helpful, but often they do not tell us the whole story. Meaning always involves the context - not only the way the word is used within the sentence, but often also the social context in which the word is used in the country where the text originates. This is illustrated by a few terms that I have seen in the course of my translation work:
Baumeister - Entscheidungsvorlage - Decke 
Baurecht - Bestand - Erschließung
This is usually translated as “master builder”.
In Germany it is used mainly as a historic term for the architects and builders who created projects such as cathedrals, palaces or major public buildings. In many cases, the same person was responsible for the design, the planning and the construction work on the building site. In Germany the term was still used as an official qualification and job title until the 1980s. Now, it only survives in job titles in some regions, such as the “Regierungsbaumeister” as a grade in the civil service system or the “Dombaumeister”,  the person responsible for conservation and repairs in a large cathedral.
However, the term “Baumeister” still represents an official job title and professional qualification in Austria and Switzerland. It is an all-round qualification which includes building skills, engineering, architecture and design, detailed planning, legal knowledge, building and project management.
What about the English term “master builder”? It is also used historically for the all-round experts who worked as architects and builders in former centuries. Nowadays, the term is mainly used for high quality building contractor firms who join together to promote their services, e.g. through the Federation of Master Builders in the UK, the Registered Master Builder scheme in New Zealand and similar organisations in other English-speaking countries. However, there is a relatively new trend in English which is similar to the historical master builder model: the concept of “design build”. In projects based on the design/build concept, there is a single contractor which is responsible for both the design and the construction of the project. The modern “design build” idea originated in the 1960s, but it is very similar to the historical model. However, the focus is on the project itself and the team of specialists, not on the qualification of any individual person.
So where does this leave us as translators? As so often, it depends on the context and the purpose of the translation. To translate the German “Baumeister” we have two key terms - the traditional “master builder” and the modern “design build” concept. In each case, we must decide how these terms can be combined to give the best rendering in the specific context.

In construction projects this term refers to information or a report which is presented to the client or developer. It usually outlines the advantages, disadvantages and costs involved in various options for details in the building plans, so that the client can make an informed decision. Possible translations are “decision memo”, “decision paper” or “proposal”. One of my translation clients is designing a major building and uses the term “decision memo” to describe such reports. In this context, I find this a good solution.
In other contexts, however, it may be completely wrong. In governments, for example, the preparatory work by civil servants to help ministers draw up new legislation may be described as an “Entscheidungsvorlage”. In English this would probably be a “draft”, or perhaps a “draft bill”. In other contexts, “Entscheidungsvorlage” could be used for a “change request” in factory or office management processes, a “credit report” in banking, and so on.

The basic meaning of the word “Decke” in buildings is the “ceiling” in rooms. But in multi-storey buildings, the ceiling of one level is also the structural floor of the next level. In building descriptions, the term “Decke” is often used to refer to the concrete floor/ceiling slab in such buildings. In road construction the word “Decke” is also used for the top road surface. Therefore it is important to find out what the word actually refers to in context.

In general and legal texts this term may refer to building law as a branch of law. But in texts about specific building projects it usually means “planning permission” or a “building permit”. So the phrase “Baurecht beschaffen” means “obtaining a building permit”.

This can refer to the pre-existing state of a building, an urban district, a facade, a wall, a floor or some other detail of the built environment. When used in texts about monument conservation or restoration it may mean the historical original condition - and sometimes the goal of the project is to restore a building so that it is as close as possible to the original. In other texts about functional refurbishment or construction it usually refers to the existing building, the existing urban context or similar.

Another deceptively simple term. A dictionary suggests development, access or opening up, but the actual use in construction-related texts is rather more complex.
When used in connection with a whole building or a building development area, the word may refer to the road traffic system leading to the property, the public transport system or the supply of infrastructure services such as electricity, water, sewers, gas or other facilities.
In a single building the word may refer to the points at which the building can be entered, i.e. the main entrance doors and any entry ramps or other entry points for vehicles, or to the pathways or entrance roads leading to these access points.
Within a building, especially in large commercial buildings, the term is also used for the features designed to enable movement within the building, such as lifts and stairs (for vertical access), corridors, and in some cases moving walkways.
Often, these different meanings can only be deduced from the context. The translation will usually include words such as access, development or entrance, but the translator must add other elements to explain what type of access, development or entrance is meant.


  1. Yes, context is king. This should be any translator's credo!

  2. Technical translations can be tricky> I once saw the word "Rack" (referrring to a computer rack) being translated into German as "Streckbank"

  3. Such a informative article and i also write about construction strategies and it planning and many more stuff you can also read them from my blog.