German Civil Code/BGB

I don’t think it’s a secret that the German Civil Code is untranslatable. Even Germans don’t understand the bare text. So why translate it? One group of users is German lawyers who want to send chunks to non-German-speaking clients (not necessarily native speakers of English). One hopes they explain the relevant aspects. Such a translation is also used by law drafters in other countries. Perhaps a danger arises when a German-English translator who doesn’t know the Code has a bit of it embedded in another text. It would be good if such people did a bit of research around the sections in question.

Here’s a description from Zweigert and Kötz’s Einführung in die Rechtsvergleichung [ZK], first the original and then Tony Weir’s excellent translation:

In Sprache und Technik, in Aufbau und Begriffsbildung ist das Bürgerliche Gesetzbuch – mit allen daraus folgenden Vorzügen und Nachteilen – ein Kind der deutschen Pandektenwissenschaft und ihrer tiefgründigen, ebenso exakten wie abstrakten Gelehrsamkeit. Der klare, vernünftige bon sens des österreichischen Allgemeinen Bürgerlichen Gesetzbuchs, die Volkstümlichkeit und Anschaulichkeit der schweizerischen Kodifikationen, die vom Ideal bürgerlicher Gleichheit und Freiheit beseelte straffe Diktion des Code civil – alles das geht dem Bürgerlichen Gesetzbuch durchaus ab. Es wendet sich nicht an den Bürger, sondern an die juristischen Experten, verzichtet bewußt auf Allgemeinverständlichkeit und volkserzieherische Wirkung und ersetzt deshalb allenthalben die konkret-anschauliche Kasuistik durch eine abstrakt-begriffliche Sprache, die dem Laien – und übrigens oft auch dem ausländischen Juristen – zwar weitgehend unverständlich bleiben muß, die aber dem in langjährigem Umgang mit dem Gesetz geschulten Fachmann durch ihre Präzision und gedankliche Disziplin immer wieder Bewunderung abnötigt. Begriffe wie “Verfügung”, “Vollmacht”, “Einwilligung”, “unverzüglich”, “in gutem Glauben” und viele andere mehr sind von den Gesetzesverfassern überall in der gleichen präzisen Bedeutung verwandt. Beweislastregelungen sind hinter bestimmten Eigenheiten des Satzbaus versteckt, Wiederholungen dadurch vermieden worden, daß das Gesetz oft an der einen Stelle ergänzend auf eine andere verweist … Genauigkeit, Klarheit und Vollständigkeit … spröder Kanzleistil, komplizierter Satzbau und altfränkische Umständlichkeit … oft auch dort, wo sich ohne Not lebendigere und anschaulichere Formulierungen hätten finden, Verweisungen hätten vermeiden lassen.


In language, method, structure, and concepts the BGB is the child of the deep, exact, and abstract learning of the German Pandectist School with all the advantages and disadvantages which that entails. Not for the BGB the simple common sense of the Austrian General Civil Code, the clear and popular style of the Swiss Code, or the sprung diction of the Code civil, instinct with the ideal of equality and freedom among citizens. The BGB is not addressed to the citizen at all, but rather to the professional lawyer; it deliberately eschews easy comprehensibility and waives all claims to educate its reader; instead of dealing with particular cases in a clear and concrete manner it adopts throughout an abstract conceptual language which the layman, and often enough the foreign lawyer as well, finds largely incomprehensible, but which the trained expert, after many years of familiarity, cannot help admiring for its precision and rigour of thought. The concepts used by the draftsmen – ‘Verfügung’, ‘Vollmacht’, ‘Einwilligung’, ‘unverzüglich’, ‘in gutem Glauben’, and many others – are always used in exactly the same sense. Sentence construction indicates where burden of proof lies, and repetitions are avoided by means of cross-references to amplifying sections … accuracy, clarity, and completeness … a prim Chancery style, complex syntax and rather Gothic cumbrousness, even where it would have been easy enough to hit upon more lively and clearer words [and avoid cross-references MM].

Book One is the main problem. It contains terms described by Gustav Boehmer as vor die Klammer gezogen (literally, placed outside the brackets, as in algebra; Weir: factored out). ZK mentions the breadth of Rechtsgeschäft (legal act): it includes normal contracts like sale and lease, ‘real contracts’ (dingliche Einigung, transferring or creating real rights over another’s property), adoption, marriage (the agreement made before the registrar), making a will, giving notice of termination, and shareholders’ resolutions, e.g. to increase capital. It goes on to describe the problems of including in Book One all the rules of voidability, which of course do not apply equally to all these circumstances, because there are limits to abstraction.

So what does a translator do with the word Rechtsgeschäft? In most texts, you can take a more specific term (in legal translation, a step up or down the ladder of abstraction is often a useful tactic). In the right circumstances, you could write marriage, or resolution. You might use legal transaction. But when it comes to terms like einseitiges / zweiseitiges Rechtsgeschäft, it would have to be a unilateral/bilateral legal act, in a theoretical text – I would not like to use the term transaction, which to me implies two sides.

Translators of the BGB are therefore confronted with the problem that they have to use vocabulary of the highest level of abstraction, even though the general English reader is not going to understand the significance of this abstraction. Like the original, the translated statute requires background knowledge.

It’s been put to me that German clients will be saying, ‘This BMJ translation uses XXX as a translation, so it must be right’. I offer the above material for argument. Remind the client of the structure of the BGB, or if the client has a wedding in the family, just ask about the Rechtsgeschäft he’s attending.

One thought on “German Civil Code/BGB

  1. Thank you for this article, the nature of BGB for me is more clear now. Before read this I had been thinking the language isn’t simple and clear, since it wasn’t designed to be understood by every citize, like French Code.

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