Changing terminology

In another mailing list last week, I was struck by the question of how to translate the term divorce decree into German.

One would normally write Scheidungsurteil, but recently the term Urteil has been removed from German divorce law, apparently because it makes divorce sound like a fight (haha!). Indeed, all family law cases now end in a Beschluss, which sounds more harmless, allegedly.

See Es gibt keine Scheidungsurteile mehr in Thomas von der Wehl’s blog.

Wir haben nur durch das neue FamFG eine neue Begrifflichkeit erhalten. Aus einem schwer nachvollziehbaren Grunde hat der Gesetzgeber den Begriff Scheidungsurteil abgeschafft und durch den Begriff Scheidungsbeschluss ersetzt. Er wollte damit ausdrücken, dass es sich bei Scheidungsverfahren um angeblich weniger streitige Verfahren handelt und dieses Weniger an Streit mit dem etwas geringerwertigen Begriff “Beschluss” kenntlich machen. Ich halte das für Unsinn, zumal die Vermutung, Scheidungsverfahren seien weniger weniger streitige Verfahren, häufig falsch ist.

So the colleague’s question was: do we change the translated term to suit new German practice? The answer on all sides was ‘no’.

And yet when English law removed the term plaintiff and replaced it by claimant, translators in the UK followed suit, even though the term plaintiff is used in Ireland and thus in the EU, and also in the USA and other common-law jurisdictions. And similarly, in family law, it’s common to use contact instead of access in translations, just because the term has changed in English law.

Of course one has to consider how close the concepts are in German law and English law. And also whether the audience is from one specific jurisdiction – it’s statistically more sensible to use plaintiff unless the readership are purely from the UK.

I’m trying to think of other cases where changes in terminology might affect translations. One area is the introduction of ‘politically correct’ usage, which may occur in the USA and UK before it does in Germany. Should a German institution use non-sexist language in its English documentation even if it doesn’t in German? I think so.

The names of courts, court personnel and lawyers often change. So do forms of companies and partnerships.

Of course, many concepts are not close and the target language needs a definition. It’s only terms like Scheidungsurteil and plaintiff that are close enough that one wonders whether to follow changes in the target language.



There’s a term in German constitutional law, Gesetzesvorbehalt, literally (reservation/requirement of a statute).

On Legally Yours, Rob Lunn discusses the equivalent Spanish concept. How to translate “reserva de ley” into English (using a descriptive strategy).

In my database I find a suggestion to translate the German term as ‘constitutional requirement of the specific enactment of a statute’ (because secondary legislation is not enough).

It is apparently sometimes translated as ‘legal reservation’ or ‘reservation of law’, which doesn’t convey the meaning at all.

The word Vorbehalt is often a problem. If you translate it as ‘reservation’, you are using a word that’s less usual in legal English than Vorbehalt is in legal German.

I prefer ‘requirement’.

There’s a discussion of the term on LEO (quite useful in parts, but I particularly enjoyed the comment ‘I actually discussed that topic with a common lawyer. He completely ignored that concept’ with its interesting use of ‘ignored’).

I’ve apparently had to translate quite a few words with ‘Vorbehalt’ as part: Änderungsvorbehalt, Beamtenvorbehalt/Funktionsvorbehalt, Eigentumsvorbehalt (reservation/retention of title), Einwilligungsvorbehalt, Erlaubnisvorbehalt, Identitätsvorbehalt, Kontokorrentvorbehalt, Liefervorbehalt, Parlamentsvorbehalt (another term for Gesetzesvorbehalt), Progressionsvorbehalt, and several more.

I can’t quite agree with Rob that this is such a culture-specific term (see Things I learnt from a journo about translating culture-specific terms: (1) Description trumps linguistic solutions), but OK, it is not a concept that applies to UK constitutional law. I would definitely use the definition here, and I might not add the German in brackets.

LATER NOTE: A query on a mailing list relates to Saldohaftungvorbehalt, as in ‘ Eigentumsvorbehalt
Bis zur vollständigen Bezahlungen bleiben alle gelieferten Waren unser Eigentum (Saldohaftungsvorbehalt).’

I would suggest ‘liability for balance’.

Zur vollsten Zufriedenheit: voll verwirrend für Übersetzer

Beck Blog (Prof. Dr. Markus Stoffels) reports on a recent decision:

Unzufrieden mit „voller Zufriedenheit“? BAG äußert sich zur Leistungsbeurteilung in Zeugnissen

in which the Federal Employment Court (Bundesarbeitsgericht) found it was acceptable for an employee to receive the equivalent of Grade 3 on the six-grade scale because this is the average grade).

Die Note 1 wird mit der Formulierung „stets zur vollsten Zufriedenheit“, die Note 2 mit „stets zur vollen Zufriedenheit“, die Note 3 mit „zur vollen Zufriedenheit“ und die Note 4 mit „zur Zufriedenheit“ zum Ausdruck gebracht.

An employee who wanted a better grade had to show evidence it was deserved.

One sometimes wonders how to translate these terms, where ‘satisfactory’ is quite negative. The non-German recipient ought to be informed of the code used, but I can’t see any other way to translate it except literally (I have actually refused to translate references of this kind in the past).

According to Wikipedia:

Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Bulgaria are the only countries in Europe where employees can legally claim an employment reference, including the right to a correct, unambiguous and benevolent appraisal.

Meanwhile, as English is used more and more widely, the Frankfurter Allgemeine is worried about unfortunate phrases in bad English:

Es gibt Empfehlungen, die mehr schaden als nützen: „He left us with enthusiasm“ oder „You will be lucky to have him to work for you“ gehören zweifellos dazu – besonders wenn sie als gutgemeinte Abschiedsformeln am Ende eines englischen Arbeitszeugnisses stehen.

Here’s the Süddeutsche Zeitung on the same topic (interview with Professor Arnulf Weuster):

Der Bewerber war “attentive to detail”, ein Pedant also. Der Vorgesetzte bescheinigt ihm Flexibilität. Schade nur, dass “flexible” auch “unentschlossen” heißt. Deutsche Arbeitszeugnisse ins Englische zu übersetzen, ist tückisch. Arnulf Weuster, Professor an der Hochschule Offenburg, hat Ratgeber zum Thema verfasst. Trotzdem hält er es letztlich für unmöglich, alle Feinheiten der Zeugnissprache zu übertragen.

And here’s Toytown Germany discussing it.

Daumen drücken

“Cross your fingers, or press your thumbs if you are a German, that we hear something from the lander again,” Valentina Lommatsch of the Rosetta mission control centre in Germany.

I haven’t been able to establish whether she is German by origin. The name Valentina is not common in Germany. The pressing of thumbs caused surprise in some quarters:

The Germans are weird in other ways. According to Inglorious Basterds if asked to hold up three fingers, they use thumb and next two fingers. Hollywood wouldn’t lie to us would they???

theGermanStandard is a blog by Kathrin, a teacher of German in London which explains this kind of thing. If crossing your fingers doesn’t help, try pressing your thumbs has a picture too. The gesture seems to go back to gladiator fights in ancient Rome.

As Johnson noted, crossing your fingers suggests you are hoping to avoid the worst, whereas Daumen drücken is about hoping for success.

I was excited to read the tweets from Philae Lander, in view of the fact that tweeting hadn’t been invented when it set off:

.@ESA_Rosetta I’m feeling a bit tired, did you get all my data? I might take a nap… #CometLanding

But maybe they are further evidence of alien activity on the comet:

According to an email published on the website – which does a regular trade in alien sightings – this mission is part of a European Space Agency and Nasa cover-up to disguise the comet’s true alien nature.

Making mistakes in German (Raed Saleh, Erasmus students in Austria)

1. Raed Saleh is a German SPD politician, who was born in the West Bank (Westjordanland) but grew up in Germany. He is a potential next mayor of Berlin, but it seems a large number of journalists believe his German is too bad. An article in taz, Ein dubioses Hörproblem (with a video clip so you can hear Saleh speaking), disagreed: it analysed the transcript of a TV interview and counted up the errors made by Saleh and the two interviewers. I wouldn’t say Saleh has a foreign accent, but some say he has, and it appears that he can’t be mentioned without the word ‘migrant’ being used, and more errors are heard in his German than are there.

As some of the commenters rightly say, if he does speak excellent German it still doesn’t qualify him to be the mayor of Berlin!

(Via Sprachlog)

2. Linz University has an (Upper) Austrian – German – English dictionary to help visiting Erasmus students (Zur besseren Verständigung zwischen (ober)österreichischen Studenten und Erasmus-Studenten).
The entries are marked as rural (L: ländlicher Raum), urban (S: städtischer Raum) and urban/Viennese (W: wienerisch/städtisch), and also as positive, negative and neutral, though these terms are not explained in English. Red marks language that should not be used.
It seems to refer to spoken language. The English looks fine, although defeated by Leberkäs (‘a type of meat popular in Austria’). And I feel some of the vocabulary is chosen because it’s funny, although it’s probably rare (Beamtenforelle, Holzpyjama – and how often in Linz do they talk about a schöne Leich nowadays?). It’s not all Austrian (den Löffel abgeben) and some is just pronunciation/spelling (moanen: meinen).

German men’s first names

Andrew Hammel is concerned about the Christian names of the German football team (Remigius-Ekkehard Scores!, ending with an interrobang).

Yesterday the German men’s national soccer team won the World Cup. But what sort of names did these “‘Germans'” have? Per and Philipp are just barely acceptable, but Toni? Kevin? Mario? Sami? Manuel?


Did we lose a war, people?!

But in the interim period, forgetting the Remigiuses and Siegfrieds (I know a couple of Ekkehards, somewhat younger than me), there are quite a few weird German male names. I once spent half an hour with a friend, going through all the ones we could think of.

With apologies in advance to those affected, what about:

Uwe, Udo, Lars, Bodo, Axel, Tillmann, Rüdiger, Wolfgang, Wolf, Heribert, Egon, Golo, Friedhelm, Hans-Werner, Horst, Günter, Jörg, Eberhard.

When Friedwald was first introduced, I thought it might make a German first name.

Of course some curious English names too. Wayne is odd, but his elder son Kai a normal German name.

So the first fruit has fallen from Wayne Rooney’s loins. Coleen Rooney gave birth to an 8lb boy yesterday, which the couple have named Kai.

The name appears to have various origins across different cultures. asserts that it is Hawaiian in origin and means ocean, although it adds that Kai could also come from “the Welsh form of Caius”, which apparently means “the keeper of the keys”. Meanwhile, a company presumably not linked to, insists Kai is of Scandinavian origin, meaning “rejoice”.

Signing off on emails/Wie unterschreibe ich eine E-Mail?

Diamond Geezer has a great post on how to start and end an email, with 44 comments at present. It starts Hi Reader and ends Many thanks dg.
I think this shows that there is no easy answer to how to address people in both formal and informal emails.
I hope this post doesn’t come across as prescriptive, because I have great doubts about all forms of address and closing.
In German, the problem is just as great.

First, in letters (British English only):
Dear Sir or Madam … Yours faithfully
Dear Mr. Smith /Dear John … Yours sincerely

In the law firm I worked in, we had this closing for clients:
Kind regards

In formal emails, you might start
And close:
Best regards
Kind regards

Is this right? I rarely write formal emails in English and I have been known to close
Yours sincerely

which may be a no-no in email.

Now the emails to friends, acquaintances and forums.
I usually start:
Some write

To a forum, I often start without a greeting.

To close, I usually write
Some write
Kind regards
Best regards

which seem awfully formal to me.
Then there are
and if one wants an answer
Many thanks
Best wishes

I particularly liked dg’s comments on Take care.

Take care. Whereas this one’s not so good. It may be only eight letters long, but there’s an unspoken hint within that something terrible is about to take place. You might as well end your email with “Watch out!” instead. It’s much too negative for me, and I’d hope for you too.

But I suspect that Take care is more common among Americans.

Now about German. First, formal.
A potential new client might write:
Sehr geehrte Frau Marks … mit freundlichen Grüßen /freundlichen Gruß
Hallo Frau Marks
Guten Tag Frau Marks

This is less formal and might come from the secretary of a client one already knows.
After some time, the client might want to be more friendly:
Liebe Frau Marks
Hallo Frau Marks /Guten Tag Frau Marks

Beste Grüße
Herzliche Grüße
Viele Grüße

Not everyone likes Viele Grüße, but I quite like it, and in any case I follow the client’s lead.
Non-Germans should note that the ß character has not been abolished – Gruß/Grüße and Straße are the most common pitfalls (except in Switzerland, of course).

Now in German to friends, acquaintances and forums.
I do have a difficulty here, because I have found German forums more formal than American and British ones. Maybe that’s because I was on CompuServe much earlier than on German forums and they seemed slower to relax. I have had my knuckles rapped and been thought to be intentionally rude for writing to a forum without a greeting. This was obviously an offence against German netiquette. I don’t know if that is the case any more, but I have an uncomfortable feeling when I write to a German forum.
So some write
Liebes Forum
Liebe Mitglieder

or some variation on the forum’s name.
Otherwise it’s down to
I don’t feel northern enough to use Moin (which is not limited to the morning)
I usually close with
but always feeling it is a bit abrupt.
I have not got used to the increasingly common
Liebe Grüße
which feels overfriendly to me but is possibly becoming standard.
I have just checked my inbox and found one
Schöne Grüße
and one
Mit kollegialen Grüßen
(this reminds me a bit of Mit sozialistischem Gruß in Goodbye Lenin).
It’s also, I remember, fairly common to mention the weather in one’s location:
Mit verregneten Grüßen aus Köln
Mit sonnigen Grüßen aus München

or if one wants a reply to a question
Neugierige Grüße
Is this done in English? I certainly avoid it.

It’s been pointed out by a commenter that MfG is a bit of a no-no, especially in formal correspondence.
That reminds me of some abbreviations widespread in informal contexts. Thnx rather irritated me because it’s scarcely shorter than Thanks.

Lawyers among themselves use Mit kollegialen Grüßen (see comment). I sometimes have to translate this into English, and the equivalent is just Yours sincerely or Best/Kind Regards. There’s a lovely heated discussion on this on the LEO forum.

And I forgot to mention the direct address I often use on forums: just the name of the person addressed, without any ‘Dear’.

Indirect speech in judgments/Indirekte Rede in Urteilen DE>EN

There was a query on Proz this week on a topic I remember once discussing on u-forum: when you translate a judgment from German to English, how do you indicate that part of it is in reported speech?

I basically agreed with the solution in this case, although it wasn’t quite what I would do (using words like ‘allegedly‘ was one of the points, and I find that a bit negative). I must say that the suggestions and discussions on Proz are often extremely helpful to me. Proz has this weird system called Kudoz, whereby you get points if you help someone to answer a question. This seems to force people to put effort into their answers, because they get even more points if their answer is selected, although sometimes the asker doesn’t select the best answer. There are discussions on Leo and dict. cc too, which tend to be more time-consuming to consult.

So here’s the problem: German uses the subjunctive for reported speech. It is absolutely clear from the verb itself that this is reported speech, even without the reporting verb. Here is a sentence from a judgment of the Bundesgerichtshof:

Nach Auffassung des Berufungsgerichts hat die Klägerin einen Anspruch darauf, dass die Beklagte die Bezeichnung der Klägerin als “Terroristentochter” unterlässt (§ 823 Abs. 1, § 1004 BGB analog). Die Bezeichnung verletze die Klägerin rechtswidrig in ihrem allgemeinen Persönlichkeitsrecht.

The judgment quotes another court. It is a vital part of the meaning that this is a quotation. In the second sentence, the verletze
is subjunctive, so clearly indirect speech, without any introductory verb or ‘Nach Auffassung’ and so on.

In English, it is essential to make this reporting clear. If the reporting verb is in the past tense, the reported verb is backshifted, but this is not always enough to show reported speech: it could mean ‘verletze’ or ‘verletzte’.

English reported speech rules are not terribly well understood in Germany, partly I think because students are expected to adhere rigidly to the backshift whereas we don’t backshift every single verb if it’s clear. Still, here is a summary:

Reporting verb in present tense or ‘According to’ etc: no backshift
Reporting verb in past tense: backshift

Canoonet has a nice summary of the German practice.

In the German example above, the first sentence has ‘Nach Auffassung des Berufungsgerichts’ and no subjunctive, the second sentence has subjunctive.

In English, the reporting phrase ‘In the opinion of the Higher Regional Court (Oberlandesgericht)’ would also be followed by a present tense, and the second sentence would remain present tense too.

Techniques of showing it is reported speech: you may replace ‘in the opinion of the court’ by ‘the court held’, followed by a backshift.
You may pepper the translation, as it continues with a big block of reported speech in the subjunctive, with more reporting verbs and ‘in the court’s view’ – these may not be there in the German, but they convey the subjunctive.
Another help is that if a whole paragraph is quoted, the layout alone may make it clear that is the case. This is the approach taken by an online translation of this very judgment.

Here’s a block of judgment (for reference see below) with the reported verbs marked. Note that the last sentence turns to the opinion of the present court, the Bundesgerichtshof, which is no longer subjunctive:

Entscheidungsgründe: I. Nach Auffassung des Berufungsgerichts hat die Klägerin einen Anspruch darauf, dass die Beklagte die Bezeichnung der Klägerin als “Terroristentochter” unterlässt (§ 823 Abs. 1, § 1004 BGB analog). Die Bezeichnung verletze die Klägerin rechtswidrig in ihrem allgemeinen Persönlichkeitsrecht.

Die Äußerung “Terroristentochter” stelle eine Tatsachenbehauptung dar.

Ein durchschnittlicher Leser verstehe den abstrakten Aussagegehalt der Bezeichnung dahin, dass jemand die Tochter von Terroristen oder eines Terroristen sei. Durch den Bezug zu Ulrike Meinhof sei für den durchschnittlichen Leser klargestellt, dass die Bezeichnung im Sinn von “Terroristin-Tochter” gemeint sei.

Es könne dahingestellt bleiben, inwieweit die Klägerin grundsätzlich dulden müsse, dass auf ihre Abstammung von Ulrike Meinhof hingewiesen werde.

Selbst wenn sie dies hinnehmen müsse, dürfe ihre familiäre Abstammung von Ulrike Meinhof nicht durch das eindringliche Schlagwort “Terroristentochter” zum Ausdruck gebracht werden. Zu familiären Beziehungen als Teil der Privatsphäre hätten andere grundsätzlich nur Zugang, soweit er ihnen gestattet werde. Die Klägerin habe keine Einwilligung erteilt, die familiäre Beziehung zu ihrer Mutter und ihre Abstammung darauf zu reduzieren, dass sie eine “Terroristentochter” sei. Sie müsse die Bezeichnung daher nicht dulden.

Etwas anderes gelte auch nicht deswegen, weil die Klägerin mehrfach über Ulrike Meinhof und den RAF-Terrorismus veröffentlicht und dabei auch offen gelegt habe, dass sie die Tochter von Ulrike Meinhof sei. Die Klägerin sei als freie Journalistin tätig. Im Rahmen der in Art. 5 Abs. 1 Satz 2 GG garantierten Pressefreiheit habe sie das Recht, Art und Ausrichtung, Inhalt und Form ihrer Veröffentlichungen selbst zu bestimmen. Der Ton, in dem sie ihre Artikel verfasse, sei Teil der Meinungsfreiheit. Dass sie die Grenze zur Schmähung überschritten habe, werde nicht vorgetragen.

Die Bezeichnung “Terroristen-Tochter” sei rechtswidrig. Zwar habe niemand einen Anspruch darauf, so gestellt zu werden, wie er sich selbst sehe, wohl aber darauf, zutreffend und nicht verfälscht dargestellt zu werden.

II. Die Ausführungen des Berufungsgerichts halten einer revisionsrechtlichen Überprüfung nicht stand.

And here are a couple of ways of translating the beginning:

Grounds: I. In the opinion of the Higher Regional Court (Oberlandesgericht), the plaintiff has a claim for the defendant to cease and desist from referring to the plaintiff as ‘Terroristentochter’ (terrorist’s daughter; section 823 (1), section 1004 with the necessary modifications, German Civil Code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch)). The court finds that the term unlawfully violates the plaintiff’s general right of personality.

Grounds: I. The Higher Regional Court … held as follows: that the plaintiff had a claim…The term unlawfully violated

The expression ‚terrorist’s daughter’ was a statement of fact.

In the translation by Raymond Youngs online, the layout makes it obvious that the whole block is indirect speech. This works here. Youngs uses a past tense, ‘infringed’, without an introductory reporting verb to justify it, but I doubt a reader would normally notice that.

7 In the appeal court’ s view, the claimant has a claim for the defendant to desist from describing her as a “terrorists’ daughter” (¿¿ 823 para 1, ¿¿ 1004 of the BGB by analogy). The description unlawfully infringed the claimant’ s general right of personality.

8 The expression “terrorists’ daughter” represented an assertion of fact.

BGH, Urteil vom 5. 12. 2006 – VI ZR 45/05; OLG München (,3371)

Raymond Youngs translation on the University of Texas site: Case: BGH VI ZR 45/05, Bundesgerichtshof (Federal Supreme Court), 6th Civil Senate
VI ZR 45/05

University of Texas Institute for Transnational Law


I just had to translate Lohndumping into English. Not easy! Someone on suggests using wage dumping plus a definition. It’s true, sometimes a single term needs a single term (one or two words) rather than a long definition, to work in a text. Apparently Lohnunterbietung is a synonym. So the suggestio would be to write ‘”wage dumping” (forcing the reduction of wages and salaries)’ or something like that.

Here are some people on a Swiss forum getting very angry on the subject:

thanks, I’m intrigued by the term itself though. Why use “dumping”? Isn’t the German language capable of describing this practice?

This is kindergarten stuff…

The term is used in English too, usually in inverted commas with a definition. It does usually apply to bringing in foreign workers.