Dealing with lower-case German brand names

One of the more intractable problems that I frequently encounter when translating from German to English concerns brand names that are written in lower case in German. Of course, there are a myriad of brand names in the English-speaking world that are written in lower case, such as Intel and Acer, the department store Macy’s, or the photo sharing site Flickr. The lower-case formatting, however, is invariably limited to the logo. In body texts, these names are always capitalized.

In the German-speaking world, by contrast, brand names that are written in lower case in both the logo and body text are exceedingly common. The lower case formatting in the body text works in German, because German nouns are always capitalized – a brand name in lower case is thus clearly recognizable as such, as it stands out from the rest of the text. In an English text, however, particularly when the brand name is a common word (e.g. Seamless), failure to capitalize is problematic, because the word gets lost in the text, and the result is very confusing for the reader.

Accordingly, when translating into English, I am a strong advocate of consistent capitalization for German brand names. This recommendation may seem obvious to English native speakers, but in the vast majority of cases in which German brand names are translated, one typically sees the lower case writing retained in the English version.

One interesting example of this “clash of (branding) cultures” is Audi’s insistence on the lower case spelling of their all-wheel drive Quattro brand in foreign markets. I imagine that the executives in the US initially balked at this formatting, and that the trademark logo was added as a compromise whenever the term is used in order to clearly demarcate it as a brand name. In English, of course, the lower case formatting is odd, as testified by the following quote from a review article at About.com: “You may remember the Audi allroad quattro, a beefed up A6 wagon that made up in off-road ability what it lacked in proper capitalization.”

The moral of the story? Brand names need to be capitalized in an English body text, even if this means discrepancy between the English and German marketing materials. The costs of maintaining consistent lower case spelling are simply too high, as there is a lack of acceptance among English-speaking audiences for lower-case brand names. Literally the only exception that I have seen in this connection is the brand name “easyJet”, but here the capital “J” somewhat compensates for the lower-case initial letter.

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