Translating a German judgment – Project Gutenberg case

Here are the two texts I am about to discuss:

Original German judgment of Frankfurt am Main Regional Court

English translation of the judgment

Here is an IPKAT post on the case.

I apologize in advance if I seem to be nitpicking in the following, since the translation is excellent and reads very well in English, although the latter is not a 100% requirement in legal translation. I assume the translation was commissioned by the Cologne law firm Wilde Beuger Solmecke, who represented both Project Gutenberg and its managing director and CEO Dr. Gregory Newby.

A commenter on my earlier post is interested in a discussion of the US English aspects of this translation. I had not thought about that. It is very similar to a British English text. However, I suppose that people might be interested on what strikes me, so I will report on that at the end.

The following are just a few remarks out of many that could be made!

Use of reported speech

Anyone translating a German judgment into English must make it clear when a statement is direct speech (the words of the court) and when it is indirect speech (the submissions of the parties). This translation does that very well.

An example: in the section of the judgment setting out the facts of the case, the words of the parties often have to be summarized, and it must be made clear in German and English that these are what the parties state.

p. 7  Die Beklagten behaupten, dass die Beklagte zu 1) keine Kenntnis von der Nationalität ihrer Nutzer habe.

Tr: The defendants claim that the first defendant has no knowledge of the nationality of its users.

No problem here.

p. 8 Die Beklagten seien nicht zum Schadensersatz verpflichtet, da sie weder vorsätzlich noch fahrlässig gehandelt hätten.

Tr. The defendants claim they are not liable for damages as their actions were neither willful  nor grossly negligent.

Here it was necessary to make it clear that this was a party’s statement, and also which party stated it.

This may seem elementary, but it is something that inexperienced translators often overlook. It also surprises me that native speakers of German who translate into English (quite common not only in Germany but in the USA, where Germans may have lived so long that they feel more comfortable with English than with German) do not always realize that this is reported speech: they learnt it from hearing it, rather than from being taught the grammar.

There are various ways of indicating reported speech. One possiblity is to write ‘The defendants submitted as follows” and then make it clear typographically that several paragraphs are the defendants’ statements. I don’t myself use ‘allege’ or ‘allegedly’, unlike the translator here, because I find it suggests that there was something suspicious about the statement – here is an example:

Die Handlungen der Freiwilligen könnten den Beklagten nicht zugerechnet werden.
The actions of the volunteers can allegedly not be attributed to the defendants.

I would rather know who ‘alleges’ this, although it is probably clear from the rest of the paragraph.

Translating court names

Landgericht Frankfurt am Main
District Court of Frankfurt am Main

I prefer Frankfurt am Main Regional Court (recommended by German authorities).
District Court: this is unclear – does it mean Landgericht or Amtsgericht? On page 10 (and elsewhere) reference to a decision by ‚Regional Court of Hamburg‘.


…hat das Landgericht Frankfurt am Main – 3. Zivilkkammer –
durch Vorsitzenden Richter am Landgericht Dr. Kurth,..
… the District Court of Frankfurt am Main – 3rd Civil Division –
through Dr. Kurth, Presiding Judge at the District Court

I would say the court is ‚sitting with (judges)‘ or ‚composed of‘…

IV Von den Kosten des Rechtsstreits haben die Beklagten jeweils die Hälfte zu tragen.
The defendants shall pay half of the costs of the proceedings respectively.

The defendants shall bear half of the costs of the proceedings each.

What I would do differently

Bezug wird genommen
reference shall be made

Me: Reference is made

Es wird festgestellt, dass die Beklagten als Gesamtschuldner verpflichtet sind, der Klägerin Schadenersatz zu leisten…
The court finds that the defendants, as the joint and several debtors, are obligated to pay damages to the plaintiff

Me: The court finds that the defendants are liable as joint and several debtors to pay damages to the plaintiff

nach §32 ZPO
pursuant to §32 ZPO (German Rules of Civil Procedure)

Me: under section 32 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Zivilprozessordnung)

§ 97 Abs. 1 UrhG
§ 97 sec. 1 UrhG

Me: section 97 (1) Copyright Act

I would not translate Rechtsanwälte as attorneys-at-law, but just as attorneys. The former sounds too much like part of the common-law system.
I would not use authorized proxy for Prozessbevollmächtigte – I would reserve proxy for someone representing another at an AGM. Maybe attorney of record or counsel.


What makes this translation US English?
There aren’t many differences from British English here.
The usual: obligate (rather than oblige, which is less common in BrE than be under a duty)
not proven


3 thoughts on “Translating a German judgment – Project Gutenberg case

  1. This is a great analysis and confirms many things I have learned from experienced professionals (lawyers and legal translators). Your section on the use of reported speech is most helpful and shows the possibilities one has without sounding awkward. Thank you for that, Margaret!
    Regarding “Rechtsanwälte” -> attorneys-at-law: When it comes to the translation of German law firms’ websites, I have often reminded German lawyers that the use of “attorney-at-law” is reserved to those who have passed the bar in a US jurisdiction. But more often than not, the Germans couldn’t be bothered to change this and replace it by the options we offered. I still believe, that “Rechtsanwalt” should not be translated at all. Does anyone bother translating “solicitor” or “barrister” or “attorney-at-law”? Right. I didn’t think so. These are titles with a specific meaning in their jurisdiction, and subject to the terms of admission to a bar or whatever that body is called in that jurisdiction.

  2. Thanks! Since English solicitors have been able to practise as solicitors in other EU countries, I have always been against it. I am corrrectly called a non-practising solicitor. But I’ve seen a lot of translations into English, especially from French, referring to a French lawyer as a solicitor. Since we have a divided legal profession, it seems particularly stupid to me. I agree that Rechtsanwalt is a good idea, or alternatively lawyer or attorney is OK in running text. I’ve recently seen a solicitor who translates calling herself avocate.
    I wrote about this in a 2012 post:

  3. Interesting points. Maybe it doesn’t strike occur to readers in Canada & US, but plaintiff seems out of sync with (E&W since 1998) claimant or (Scots) pursuer vs. defender.

    I think attorney(s)-at-law (lower casing), again, is what most German-area lawyers (Rechtsanwälte/innen or Advokaten/innen in AT & CH) used on their notepaper and office signplates and, to my mind, is meant to contrast with an attorney-in-fact riding on a one-off power of attorney.

    As an ‘unathoris/zed proxy’ (liking the translations of attorney of record or trial? counsel), I also use – to avoid tedious what’s-a-Barrister vs. Solicitor? queries in German-speaking countries – the rough-&-ready title of (ung.) Prozeßanwalt (or especially in SPA: procurador de los tribunales vs. abogado or letrado) for Barrister or, to use the full title, even if non-practising or retired: Barrister-at-Law.

    If describing e.g. a Tax Barrister/Revenue Bar Counsel predominantly writing counsel’s tax opinions and rarely appearing in court, I would go for (ung.) Steuerfachanwalt.

    The crunch would really come when translating a Chancery Practitioner (an Equity Barrister or Solicitor) rather than the easier title of an Insolvency Practitioner, but I have never seen that question asked.

    As a footnote, I know an English conveyancing & probate Solicitor who calls himself ‘Monsieur le notaire’ in France where conveyances of land and Wills need to be handled or signed off by Notaries Public.

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