German academic titles in English

German usage of academic titles is often troublesome for the translator. Clearly, titles are used in German texts in many contexts in which they would be omitted in English. In the English-speaking world, of course, there is the perception that titles should be used sparingly, for they can rub the wrong way. Depending on the context, readers may view titles as a pretentious effort to impress, perhaps because of a need to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. This cultural perception places the translator in a bind, for when German customers are not familiar with title-usage conventions in the English-speaking world, they may view the removal of titles from a translation when they are not appropriate as an affront. Yet simply retaining titles in English as a strategy for circumventing this problem is actually no solution at all, as it may weaken the text, and, by extension, ill serve the customer. In my view, the best solution is to try and educate customers about proper title usage in English.

One resource to draw on in this regard is the Economist Manual of Style, which recommends never using the “Dr.” title in a body text in English, except for medical doctors. Amusingly, the Style Guide takes a direct shot at German title usage, stating that some titles are “tiresomely long (Mr Dr Dr Federal Sanitary-Inspector Schmidt)”.

Another strategy for educating customers is to draw attention to actual usage in prominent English publications. In Scientific American, for example, the “Prof.” and “Dr.” titles are rarely used, even when referring to high-ranking academics. Instead, the typical approach is to simply cite the individual’s field and university affiliation (i.e. “physicist Niels Bohr of the University of Copenhagen says” and not “Nobel Prize Winner Prof. Dr. Dr. Niels Bohr says” ).

To cite an example: In a recent article in Scientific American about Ewan Birney, a full professor and physicist at the University of Cambridge, no mention is made of his academic laurels. Instead, the article adopts the physicist’s own self-deprecating title “cat herder in chief”. I think this is a telling example of perceptual differences between the German and English speaking worlds when it comes to title usage.