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.


DORES, as I’ve mentioned before, stands for Dokumentation zu Recht und Sprache, a Swiss website that lists all the latest books on language and law. My attention was caught by these:

bq. Bernasconi, Michele / Wildhaber, Anne M. (Hrsg.) / Watter, Urs: Swiss Law Bibliography. English Language Materials on Swiss Law. Basel: Helbing & Lichtenhahn 2005, 379 S..
Verzeichnet (1) englische Übersetzungen von Schweizer Erlassen, (2) englische Literatur über schweizerisches Recht, (3) Internetadressen mit englischsprachigem schweizerischem Recht und englischsprachiger Literatur zu schweizerischem Recht. – This looks great. It costs the equivalent of 50 euros, as far as I can tell. Unfortunately it may not be in any of the libraries close to me.

bq. Weimann, Holger / Leppert, Norbert / Höbermann, Frauke: Gerichtsreporter. Praxis der Berichterstattung Berlin: ZV Zeitungs-Verlag 2005, 344 S.. – a book for journalists on how to write about court cases.

bq. Pommer, Sieglinde: Rechtsübersetzung und Rechtsvergleichung. Translatorische Fragen zur Interdisziplinarität. Bern / Berlin / Frankfurt a. M. etc.: Lang 2006, 172 S.. – an academic text on translation. Could it be a doctoral thesis? Frau Pommer will be speaking at the ATA conference in November (on Vagueness in Legal Terminology, whether there is creativity in legal translation (I belong to the school that says there is!) and Teaching and Researching Legal Translation: What Input from Comparative Law? Sounds interesting.

Those are not all the interesting entries, either. You may have to register (free of charge), and then, if you see an interesting title, click on the + sign beside it to see more details.

Computers and law conference ending/EDV-Gerichtstag Saarbrücken

I am abjectly apologetic that I forgot to mention the fifteenth EDV-Gerichtstag in Saarbrücken from 13 to 15 September 2006. Well, it’s not quite over.

They kindly invited me to come, and I did at least promise to mention them. That just goes to show you can’t trust anybody.
It looks really well-organized too (here’s the online planning section).

While looking at reports of the conference, I noticed Juristische Begriffe. This is a site run by Enrico Krüger to collect the basic legal vocabulary plus definitions needed for German university law exams. There are also audio definitions as MP3 files. The collection is not huge, but a good place to check.

The project developed from the Jenaer Jura-Trainer and has some exchange with JuraWiki. The JuristenLatein section of JuraWiki should be useful, as legal Latin used in Germany differs from that used in England, and both differ from that used in the USA.

Move your ass/Übersetzungsprobleme

The Austrian paper Der Standard has a series called Winders Wörterbuch zur Gegenwart.

For instance, it discusses the word Gammelfleisch (see recent Bavarian meat scandals) and invites readers to answer the question: What did we call Gammelfleisch in the old days? One commenter notes the connection with German Gammler and suggests Austrian Sandlerfleisch (I’ll add a there in case anyone’s taken in).
English-language papers refer to putrid/ rotten/ spoiled/ bad meat.

Il quaderno dei vocaboli reports a discussion in 2005 of the U.S. expression ‘Get your arse over here’ (German heading Dein Arsch).

bq. Man hört es häufig in der deutschen Synchronfassung amerikanischer Filme, man hat es in den vergangenen Wochen oft in den Zeitungen gelesen, wenn die armen Einwohner von New Orleans zitiert wurden: Dass nämlich jemand endlich “seinen Arsch” herbeibewegen solle (im Falle von New Orleans: die Katastrophenhelfer im fernen Washington).

When American films are dubbed in German, you hear the un-German expression ‘sie sollen ihren Arsch herbeibewegen’ – for instance, it was used with reference to calls for helpers to come to New Orleans to help the flood victims. This results from the literal translation into German of ‘They should move their asses down here’.

bq. Wortwörtlich – aber schlecht: In “American Slang”, einem bei Eichborn erschienenen Wörterbuch der amerikanischen Umgangssprache von Bernhard Schmid lesen wir dazu, dass “ass” in Verbindung mit dem Possessivpronomen keineswegs jene derbe Konnotation hat, welche ihm in der deutschen Übersetzung unterschoben wird, sondern lediglich soviel heißt wie “Person”. Schmid weiter: “In Sätzen wie ,Get your ass over here’ bedeutet ,ass’ nichts weiter als ,self’, was den ,Arsch’ im Deutschen völlig überflüssig macht, vor allem weil er in den meisten dieser Fälle völlig unidiomatisch ist. ‚Mach dass du herkommst’ genügt völlig.” Mit anderen Worten: Übersetzer und Redakteure täten gut daran, wenn sie ihren Zusehern und Lesern in Zukunft einige Ärsche ersparen würden.

Winder quotes an Eichborn slang dictionary that points out that here ‘ass’ means ‘yourself’.

Of course, there are many reasons why this kind of thing happens in dubbing: cost-cutting is the main one. A lot of dubbing is done from a script without the translator seeing the film. But another one is finding words to match the mouth movements.

There are 43 comments. One of them cites an American acquaintance who would translate ‘Move your ass down here’ as ‘Verdammt noch einmal, kommt doch endlich her’, and confirms that the word ass is less offensive in AmE than Arsch in German, whereas shit is stronger in AmE than Scheiße in German.

Other commenters wonder if it was a request for more donkeys in Louisiana (I would say that AmE rarely uses ass for Esel, unlike BE where we have the different spellings of arse and ass to distinguish the two).

Meanwhile, the large Langenscheidt (Muret-Sanders) leaves little choice:

bq. ass2 [], etc Am. vulg. für arse, etc: break ones ass sich den Arsch aufreißen sl.; kick ass a) mit der Faust auf den Tisch schlagen, b) ein Flitzer sein (Wagen)
© Langenscheidt KG, Berlin und München

To relate this to legal translation, we might wonder about the exclamation when someone is felt to have been given too lenient a custodial sentence, ‘Diese Strafe kann er auf der halben Arschbacke absitzen’. (See also Udos Wörterbuch)

Unread books/Stöckchen

Frau Kohlehydrat has sent me a meme, or as the Germans call it ein Stöckchen, or as the Austrians including Frau Kohlehydrat call it, ein Steckerl: to list the ten books that are gathering dust on my shelves because I bought them but haven’t read them.

I don’t usually do these, but this one seems highly suitable as I have even more than ten unread books. And for years, when I was teaching, I used to buy all sorts of books just to imagine how nice it would be to have time to read them.

Robert Underhill: Turkish Grammar
I am sure this is a brilliant grammar. Its idea is to take you through the grammar in thirty-eight lessons with a minimum vocabulary. You can get the vocabulary elsewhere. I spent nearly three years trying to learn Turkish, going to evening classes and hoping to expand my knowledge at home. It was a long time before I realized that my desire to be able to read Turkish newspapers was never going to be realized in those classes and with those books, because written Turkish is highly complex with sentences of German complexity but different structure, and we weren’t going to be taught that. There is also a good book on reading newspaper Turkish that showed me there was no point unless I went to Underhill. However, I seem to have abandoned it now. The Underhill costs the earth but I got it cheapish by using abebooks and having it sent from the USA by surface mail.

Marion Shoard: A survival guide to later life
This is only unread because I left my first copy with my aged relatives for whose sake I bought it. It takes months to get by post. It is a Daily Telegraph special, dated 2004. Marion Shoard wrote on environmental affairs for 25 years and when her mother, in her mid-80s, needed more help, she researched the situation for old people in the UK thoroughly. I think I need to read this. It is very specifically UK and explains the details of obtaining help and care, among much else.

Rob Eastaway: What is a googly?
An explanation of cricket for laypersons. I wanted some cricket on DVD to accompany reading this, but for some reason it took certain persons months and months to record some, by which time the book had gathered some dust. Glossary in the back.

Wolf Haas: Das ewige Leben
I have never read any of Haas’s crime novels, although I’ve seen a film or possibly two based on them. I’ve been told it’s not a pleasure to read because the language is so idiosyncratic, but I suspect I will read it. Here’s the first paragraph:

bq. Jetzt ist schon wieder was passiert. Und ob du es glaubst oder nicht. Zur Abwechslung einmal etwas Gutes. Weil erlebst du auf einer Intensivstation auch nicht jeden Tag, dass dir ein Hoffnungsloser noch einmal wird.

Tim Richardson: Sweets. A history of candy
This may be too heavy going. Why do books not mention pismaniye? It isn’t really candy floss, because it contains butter and flour as well as sugar.

Paul Celan: Die Gedichte. Kommentierte Gesamtausgabe
I think one can have too much Celan. Great stuff, but rather lugubrious. There is also a tendency for people to put him on a pedestal without understanding him. Apparently the members of Gruppe 47 laughed when he presented Die Todesfuge. Anyway, I feel enough drawn to some of his work that it seemed a good idea to read a commented edition, because there are so many references, often quite private ones. The big problem with this book is that the endnotes – there are 425 pages of end material – give the title of each poem, but not the page it is on. It’s therefore easier to pick some interesting notes and then trace the poem.

Richard Conniff: Spineless Wonders
This is subtitled ‘Strange tales from the invertebrate world’. I thought it would be a good follow-up to Goff’s A Fly for the Prosecution, but I’ve never got into it.

Wolfram von Eschenbach: Willehalm
I didn’t realize Willehalm had a great reputation till I went to the Wolfram museum in Wolframs Eschenbach. Unfinished, but a diatribe against the Crusades and a fairish view of the Muslims. I wanted to read some Middle High German again. My edition has modern German facing the original, and I think indecisiveness as to which to read slowed me down.

Karina Matejcek: Überleben ohne Sekretärin
I’m always a sucker for books on subjects I feel inadequate about. But a closer glance at this indicated that only parts were helpful and it was rather superficial. Nor does it look so good on my bookshelf as How to Succeed in Business without a Penis by Karen Salmansohn. This is also unread, but it may impress visitors.

Harry Mount: My Brief Career
The trials of a young lawyer. I forgot I even had this. It’s an account of a year as a pupil in barristers’ chambers. I must have got it in a bookshop, as I wouldn’t have bought it without leafing through and deciding it wasn’t too joky for me.

I am now supposed to pass this Steckerl on. I can’t send it to Des, as he seems otherwise occupied looking after a poeskat and preparing a wedding, and Trevor also seems otherwise occupied. If they wish then, to:

languagehat (but I’m sure Steve has read all his books)
and isabella

Heritage Day/Tag des offenen Denkmals


In Bavaria, the Tag des offenen Denkmals was moved forward to Saturday 9 September to avoid a clash with the Pope’s mass in Munich on Sunday. Other cities may have more (Open House London is on 16 and 17 September this year), but Fürth usually has something on the programme where architects and restorers explain some building they are working on – usually some private building one can’t usually get in.

Goldbeater’s house, Pfisterstraße 6 (and above):


Figure showing various ideas for colour of restoration, and athletic elements, Blumenstraße 32:


Intention / Vorsatz

Kim Metzger directed my attention to a wonderful discussion on Absicht and Vorsatz on Who will win? It’s not clear yet how many offences have been committed, but it’s marvellous what people will write if you offer them points for doing it.

I’ve discussed this briefly before.

In English law, you can commit murder by direct or indirect intent or specific intent, I would say. And none of this has to involve what is commonly known as premeditation – that’s usually applied to planned murders, but intent(ion) can arise on the spur of the moment.