German enterprises love calling themselves Generalunternehmer in marketing contexts. And according to dict.cc, general contractor and prime contractor are stock-standard English equivalents. Now these terms may look or feel deceptively similar to Generalunternehmer. But nine times out of ten they are simply wrong for an English-speaking audience. Here’s why:
Generalunternehmer - auf Deutsch
The word Generalunternehmer pops up time and time again. It is a favoured expression of many a German software developer and engineering company, to name just a few. They use it to emphasise the comprehensive nature of their services, and rightly so; according to Duden Online, a Generalunternehmer takes responsibility for an entire project from start to finish, coordinating all sub-contractors.
The Swiss faction of IT firm T-Systems, for example uses the term to describe their relationship with the Swiss BZ Bank: Als Generalunternehmer betreibt, pflegt und wartet T-Systems die gesamte Lösung in einem eigenen Rechenzentrum.
The translator in this case makes this out of it: “As the general contractor, T-Systems operates, maintains and services the entire solution in a dedicated computer centre.”
But unfortunately for T-Systems, general contractor makes no sense whatsoever in this context (oh, and computer centre is also wrong, but we’ll leave that for the moment).
So what's the problem with "general contractor"?
THIS is the problem:
Run a Google image search for general contractor and you’ll see hammers, yellow hard hats and men with bulldozers. There’s a good reason for this: Collins American English Dictionary defines general contractor as “a person who contracts to construct a building or buildings, […], in accordance with certain plans and specifications […]”.
When T-Systems and other companies take general contractor out of context, it conveys the wrong message.
So how about “prime contractor”?
Nope, this alternative isn’t any better. Yes, the expression prime contractor exists. But like general contractor, it is only appropriate in a very narrow context. In the US in particular, the phrase has military connotations, and seems to refer to larger firms that bid for big government contracts.
This has very little to do with the way German businesses use the term Generalunternehmer.
Our “complete solution”
Translating Generalunternehmer as general contractor is fine if – and only if – you are describing a company that coordinates construction projects. For an IT firm like T-Systems, however, phrases like one-stop shop, or end-to-end provider are a much more appropriate. When it comes to industrial engineering firms, our advice is to avoid general contractor. Yes, these companies are involved in construction in a sense. But Collins certainly doesn’t mention industrial engineering or factories, and you won’t see American or British engineering businesses calling themselves general contractors. In this case, it may be more appropriate to talk about comprehensive solutions or turnkey projects.
To avoid any confusion when translating Generalunternehmer, it is worth considering using a full phrase. “We assume end-to-end responsibility for the project.” “We are your single point of contact and responsibility, coordinating all other providers.” If you are after a lighter tone, you could even consider the very colloquial phrase “soup-to-nuts solution”.
Et voilà. These phrases are used by British and American companies across a range of industries. And they won’t leave readers wondering how they missed T-Systems’ sudden entry into the home construction market.