Tips To Translate English To Dutch And Vice Versa


Dutch is not only the official language of the Netherlands but also the neighbouring northern provinces of Belgium in Flanders. The Dutch language in this area is known as Flemish, but contrary to belief, it is not an actual language, but instead a version of Dutch spoken in this Dutch-speaking area of Belgium. With both countries having a strong backbone for international trade it is beneficial to understand the cultural nuances of the language if you plan to do business or set up business in the Netherlands or Flanders.

Although Dutch and English are two languages that are poles apart, they are also kindred spirits in that they both have Germanic roots and therefore bear similar characteristics such as ‘Dat is goed nieuws!’ (That is good news!). However, it is important to note the language and cultural differences where translation is concerned in order that both languages are portrayed in their most authentic form. Below are a few tips to get your started: –

Text expansion

As with many languages, length of text can vary quite a bit between each language and more words are needed than in others to say the same thing. With regards to Dutch and English, the former results in longer sentences, where the text can be as much as 35% longer. This will change depending on the type of text e.g. this can have a direct impact on the likes of marketing texts such as on websites, calls to action in sales driven texts, app store descriptions, interface texts or just simply increasing the number of pages in a brochure resulting in increased costs. It might be useful therefore to adapt the original source text before translation to ensure the translated text fits the allocated space and doesn’t cause issues with DTP. This works both ways because if the text were being translated from Dutch into English, there is a likelihood that the length of the text would shrink, which in turn would mean there would be an empty space where text would have originally sat in the Dutch.

If this option were not possible, it would be the job of the translator to be skilled in adapting the target text to fit the space, whilst at the same time ensuring that the original message is kept, as well as ensuring the target culture is represented in the translation. So if it were a Dutch website for example, a native Dutch translator specialising in creative, marketing and sales texts would be the most appropriate person to fulfil the needs of this kind of project. Not only would they have the skills to adapt the Dutch text where necessary, they would also understand the target culture’s market. It would also definitely be worthwhile having the end result proofread in its app or website format to make sure that no words are missing and everything is as it should be.

And what do you do when you are faced with the many extremely long Dutch words? Like the German and Finnish languages, the Dutch language creates long single words, which replaces what is generally a smaller sequence of words in English. E.g. the 53-letter word ‘Kindercarnavalsoptochtvoorbereidingswerkzaamhedenplan’ (the longest Dutch word) meaning preparation activities for a children’s carnival procession, would be broken down into 7 English words. Like with text expansion and shrinkage, this is where a native expert can provide useful alternatives.


Localisation in any language is important as cultures vary across the board. What might appear acceptable in one culture might go down like a lead balloon in another. It is important to take note of your target audience whether it is Dutch or English, as there is not just one form of Dutch or English. Just like there are many words that vary between the UK and U.S English e.g. (UK) boot (of car) / (U.S) trunk, or spellings e.g. colour / color, localise / localize, Dutch differs across the borders of the Netherlands and Belgium. It is therefore essential to know whether the target country for which the Dutch translation is required is for the former or latter. Take the English word ‘national’, if the target market were Belgium, then the Flemish word ‘nasional’ would be required, as whilst the Dutch ‘natzional’ may not look very different, it would look out of place in a text whose target market is Flanders. There may be many words that Dutch and Flemish share, but equally there are countless words which are not used in both dialects and many that are not interchangeable. E.g. ‘schoonbroer’ in Flanders mean’s my wife’s brother, whilst in the Netherlands the Dutch is ‘zwager’.

As is evident in many European languages, such as French, Spanish, German and Portuguese, there is the use of both the formal and informal address of ‘you’. Formal Dutch for ‘you’ is ‘u’, whilst the informal is ‘je’. This can be a challenge when translating into English, because in order to convey this formality or informality in English, the text would need to be adapted by using English words of formal and informal registers, so that the same level of formality is preserved. Moreover, just to make it a little more complicated, the Dutch in the Netherlands no longer use the formal, ‘u’ and has been replaced by the informal je (you). This is the opposite in Flanders, where the formality is still in existence. In this instance, not only is there the challenge of translating these different levels of address, the text would need to be localised and translated by a native qualified and professional Flemish translator, as the end result will be an authentic translation that respects the target culture.

The untranslatable

How do you combat the translation of words that are untranslatable? What can be done to overcome this barrier if a text includes very locally cultural words, which have no parallel in English or Dutch? What tools can the translator use to convey these cultural nuances? The text would require localisation, which in other words means adapting the text to the target country language and culture, choosing a word or phrase that will best fit within the context of the sentence and be understood by locals. Take the English term ‘trade-off’, which describes a situation where one must accept something that isn’t as good or you do not like or want it, in exchange for something good or something that you want. In this instance, the person fully understands the advantages and disadvantages of each choice when they make the decision. The term is challenging to translate as it would require more than five words in another language to describe its meaning. The writer of the source text, therefore, might find it advantageous to find an alternative word for this term, in order for it to be easily accessible in Dutch.

An example of a Dutch word which bears no literal English equivalent is the extremely Dutch term ‘gezellig’ (adjective) or ‘gezelligheid’ (noun), a word very close to the Dutch people’s heart. It is used in situations, as well as for places and people; so for instance, a Dutch person might describe their sunset walk along the river with their partner, or an evening out with friends in one of their favourite restaurants, as ‘gezellig’, giving the impression of something that has a real feel-good vibe, or something that is familiar, warm, friendly, cosy, and jovial. It also bears the connotation of an enjoyable time spent with loved ones, seeing a friend after a long absence, or just a general togetherness. The closest English description might be something along the lines of ‘convivial’. At the end of the day, sometimes there really is no easy way to express the same local word and the real meaning at the same time. It might just have to take on description rather than a translation, but that would be entirely up to the skill of the translator or as mentioned earlier, finding an alternative in the source language!

When all is said and done, it’s about understanding what your objective is when it comes to building that international relations and how you can best achieve your goal through the written word. It is also worth noting that when you get to the nitty-gritty of translation, the key point to consider is that a native translator will safeguard the native fluency of a translation throughout its text, and if you add specialist subject proficiency to the mix, where correct terminology or creative adaptation is fundamental, the end goal is always the same; that the text reads as if it has been written by a native.

“Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture”. (Anthony Burgess, English writer and composer)

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