My legal translation nemeses: the German words I love to hate

I’ve been a freelance legal translator for the language combination DE>EN for 8 years now. In that time, I have translated hundreds of legal documents from German into English: from software licensing agreements to company register excerpts to 5-year business strategies.

I’ve had to wrestle with technical legal concepts from a wide range of fields of law. Tax law, insurance law and the law of civil procedure tend to be the most challenging subject areas for me, with documents from those fields requiring far more time to be spent on research than things like data protection law, where I have the terminology down pat.

The silver lining: once I’ve got a term properly researched and translated, it is saved in my translation software database and I never have to do that work again. I do like efficiency.

Tricky terminology

However, there are other German words which don’t fit neatly into this kind of framework. Perhaps there is no clean translation for them and I just have to take the best option on offer in the individual case. Or maybe it’s because the meaning of the term changes according to context. Difficulties can also stem from native writers using terms carelessly – or even to create intentional ambiguity, so I have to think extra carefully about the author’s intentions to get to the correct translation.

These are the German words that give this legal translator the most headaches…

1. Beziehungsweise

First on my headache-hitlist ist “beziehungsweise“. This word (or its abbreviation “bzw.“) pops up and annoys me on a regular basis and loves to eat up my time as it is almost never used in the proper way.

The correct uses of “beziehungsweise” are as follows:

a) To indicate a link between two nouns

Take the following sentence:

“Thorsten hat zwei Töchter, Amy und Hanna. Sie sind 3 bzw. 6 Jahre alt”.

In this case, the correct translation for “beziehungsweise” in English would be “respectively” and the translation of the sentence would be:

“Thorsten has two daughters, Amy and Hanna. They are 3 and 6 years old, respectively“.

b) To further specify a piece of information already given

Take the sentence:

“Ich bin in Yorkshire aufgewachsen, beziehungsweise in einem kleinen Dorf 20 Autominuten von York entfernt”.

Possible translation:

“I grew up in Yorkshire – in a small village 20 minutes’ drive from York to be precise“.

Unfortunately, the word “beziehungsweise” is subject to some dreadful use and abuse at the hands of writers who either don’t know how to apply it correctly, or use it to intentionally muddy the waters of meaning. For a legal translator, this can be a real pain in the neck.

The no. 1 crime committed in connection with “beziehungsweise” is to think it is a substitute for “und” (= and) or “oder” (= or). This can result in some real clangers of contractual clauses which (purport to) set out a number of requirements which must be fulfilled, either cumulatively or alternatively, in order for a certain legal consequence to occur.

This should be the hour of glory for “und” and “oder“, but “beziehungsweise” too often comes and steals their thunder.

I often see clauses built like this:

“Wenn Voraussetzungen A, B, C, D bzw. E erfüllt sind, tritt Rechtsfolge X ein”.

(“If requirements A, B, C, D [bzw.] E are met, legal consequence X will occur”.)

As a legal translator, I’m left thinking “WHAT DO YOU MEAN???”

What the devil is the “beziehungsweise” doing in this clause? Is it an “and”, meaning that the requirements have to be met cumulatively? Or is it an “or”, meaning that the requirements are to be met alternatively? Or does it mean that A, B and C have to be met cumulatively but that D or E are alternative requirements and the fulfilment of one of them will mean that the legal consequence X will still occur? Who knows. But this stuff matters – not least to translators trying to decipher what the source text means.

Hey, German-speaking lawyers! Have a care and learn how to use “beziehungsweise” properly. Much obliged.

frustrated young woman in front of a computer
I bet she’s wrestling with an errant “beziehungsweise”

2. Rechtsstaat

One of the most important words in German, Austrian and Swiss law…and unfortunately one of the trickiest to translate.

I think a lot of translators would probably just say “rule of law, obviously – what else would it be?”

But you can’t just take the first term in the target language that looks appropriate and skip on merrily. Legal terms first need to be understood on a standalone basis in the context of the legal system from which they originate. The question of how to translate them is a second step. At this stage, the legal translator considers the different options from various angles and according to different translation strategies. A decision is made based on that analysis.

That makes the process sound very tidy and clinical. In practice, it’s more like a messy, noisy debate inside my head between actors with very different approaches and priorities – all vying for superiority. The debate on “Rechtsstaat” goes something like this:

Voice 1:Rechtsstaat” is basically serving the same purpose as “rule of law”: therefore, “rule of law” should be a suitable translation.

Voice 2: But the ways these terms have developed, their philosophical underpinnings and how they are used in German-speaking jurisdictions and in English-speaking jurisdictions are so different. With such significant cultural and philosophical differences, can “rule of law” then really be a good translation for “Rechtsstaat“?

Voice 3: Well, the EU’s IATE database gives two equally-rated translations for the term: “constitutional state” and “(state subject to the) rule of law”. Using “constitution state” would assuage those concerns about the two concepts being so different from one another in substance and in their respective cultural contexts.

Voice 4: Come on, no-one in the English-speaking area is going to understand the term “constitutional state”, the term is not commonly used there. The purpose of a translation is to be understood by its users in the target language. “Rule of law” is going to ignite a greater spark of recognition in the reader than “constitutional state” which will just confuse them because they won’t know what it means.

The voice of business: Stop faffing around, woman! This translation doesn’t consist of just one word – there’s another 8,000 to get done and the deadline is in two days. Endless academic navel-gazing is toxic for your hourly rate and you’re not doing this for fun. You are trying to make a living. Make a decision!

And so it goes on. To be honest, “rule of law” is what I go for as a translation in most cases. With “Rechtsstaat” written next to it in brackets if that feels appropriate. It’s not perfect, but the best of what’s going. Extended periods of academic umm-ing and ah-ing are all well and good but a lot of the time, it’s pragmatism that wins the day.

3. Leistung

Leistung” is one of those words that the German language is absolutely obsessed with. Either as a standalone word, or as part of a compound noun – it pops up in a dizzying array of different situations and contexts.

One word: so many translation options.

Leistung” on its own can refer to: an achievement (e.g. of a sporting or scholastic nature), performance (i.e. what a party is obliged to do under a contract), the horsepower of a vehicle, benefits under an insurance policy…and much much more.

Then you have compound nouns like “Leistungsstörung“(a defect in the performance of contractual obligations which would trigger certain statutory guarantee remedies) and “Leistungsdruck” (a pressure to perform). Not to mention adjectives like “leistungsstark” (high-performing/high-performance) or “leistungsorientiert” (meritocratic or achievement-oriented).

Leistung” is a thoroughly useful and zippy little word – but the multipurpose nature of it can make accurate translation a bit of a minefield.

4. Besitzmittler

Translating hardcore, theoretical property law texts from German into English is fortunately something I don’t have to do that often. Contracts for the purchase of real estate? Yes, I’ve had a few of those. Long texts about the characteristics and functions of a range of raw property law concepts under German/Austrian civil law? In practice, it just doesn’t happen.

Except for that one time I had to translate a range of individual Austrian property law terms into English, including Besitzmittler. It doesn’t take much thinking to know that – because English law and civil law systems like Austria’s are so different – this was going to be a demanding task involving a lot of head-scratching and staring off into the middle-distance in a deep, faux-intellectual kind of way.

I was just about warming up to the challenge when the project was halted and my deliberations stopped. The English term I was most comfortable with at that point was “bailee”, but I still wasn’t entirely happy. And that’s even before I’d thought about Besitzanweisung, Besitzkonstitut and Besitzdiener

Well I guess the answer will have to wait until another day.

More blog articles from Spezialis Translations:

All clangers great and small: a little anthology of iffy translations

Austrian German – 10 fantastic words and phrases that everyone should know about

Functional equivalence in legal translation

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