A note on a translation problem: a colleague had a sentence with hilfsweise and later hilfs-hilfsweise. I have met ‘in the alternative…in the further alternative’.

Also encountered: ‘in the first alternative…in the second alternative’. I think this puts the two on the same level, whereas ‘in the further alternative’ makes it subordinate – first try one, then if that doesn’t work, fall back on two.

Also encountered in German texts: eventualiter and subeventualiter.

I have not given a context. It is sometimes used in applications to court, requesting one alternative, but if that fails, a second.

A Linguee search for ‘in the further alternative’ reveals also ‘äußerst hilfsweise’ and ‘weiter hilfsweise’. A web search reveals more. A ProZ entry suggests that the German should be hilfsweise and höchst fürsorglich.

But I don’t need to go into enormous detail, although the commenter xxxKrstyMacC may wish to.


unverzüglich/without undue delay

I normally translate unverzüglich as without undue delay. This is always in contracts governed by German law where the German-language version takes precedence.

The background is in section 121 of the German Civil Code, which contains a statutory definition (Legaldefinition):

§ 121 Anfechtungsfrist

(1) Die Anfechtung muss in den Fällen der §§ 119, 120 ohne schuldhaftes Zögern (unverzüglich) erfolgen, nachdem der Anfechtungsberechtigte von dem Anfechtungsgrund Kenntnis erlangt hat. Die einem Abwesenden gegenüber erfolgte Anfechtung gilt als rechtzeitig erfolgt, wenn die Anfechtungserklärung unverzüglich abgesendet worden ist.
Here’s the ‘official’ English translation:

Section 121 Period for avoidance

(1) Avoidance must be effected, in the cases set out in sections 119 and 120,without culpable delay (without undue delay) after the person entitled to avoid obtains knowledge of the ground for avoidance. Avoidance made to an absent person is regarded as effected in good time if the declaration of avoidance is forwarded without undue delay.

The translation is a bit odd, but there is no good solution. The German gives the definition first (without culpable delay) and the term defined  (unverzüglich) in brackets. The English seems to say that whenever in the text of the Civil Code we encounter without undue delay we should read it to mean without culpable delay. That is the way brackets are used in many statutory definitions in German.

I certainly don’t think that an English-speaking reader would understand ‘without undue delay’ to mean ‘without culpable delay’. But it does indicate that not every delay will be a problem.

Triebel/Vogenauer write that a lot of terms that are precise in German law, and even have a statutory definition as in this case, have English semi-equivalents that are rather vague.

The contracts I translate have usually been governed by German law and with the German version taking priority, my translation just for convenience, and they have usually been for individuals in big companies to understand, but if they have a legal problem, they will consult a German colleague or lawyer because the German version prevails. However, there are many contracts written in English but governed by German law. I would not translate one of those because I’m not a practising and insured lawyer. Triebel/Vogenauer is written with those lawyers in mind. Their knowledge of law may be better than their knowledge of the English they draft it in.

There are two ways of handling this in such a contract: 1) write ‘without undue delay (unverzüglich, §121 BGB)’ or something along those lines 2) attach a glossary to the contract including all the terms with a specific meaning in German that would need explanation in English.

Triebel/Vogenauer (305 ff.) discuss the problem of translating vague English terms in German and using the German term with a statutory definition, for example translating ‘without (undue) delay’ as ‘unverzüglich’ in the sense of section 121 of the Civil Code. They give a table of such terms with both a definition of the English meaning and a partial approximation in German law.

Ken Adams encountered this problem in 2015 – see the post “Shall Without Undue Delay” (Including a German Angle). I was alerted to this article in Twitter only this week.

He thought ‘promptly’ was more elegant than ‘without undue delay’. He received an email from an attorney in Düsseldorf who cautioned against this is the contract was governed by German law. He explained the problem and added ‘So I tend to use “without undue delay”, often followed by “unverzüglich” in brackets’. There are some useful comments thee, including two from Stuart Bugg, who does translate such contracts. (His book, Contracts in English, is ot based on the law of any particular jurisdiction, and it contains an apendix with German translations of legal terms).

On Juraforum there is a list of terms given a Legaldefinition (statutory definition) in German law.

Legaldefinition meint eine im Gesetz enthaltene Definition eines unbestimmten Rechtsbegriffes. Sie sind oftmals daran zu erkennen, dass das definierte Wort nach der Definition in Klammern steht.


Zum Beispiel:   Anspruch, § 194 Absatz 1 BGB

„Das Recht, von einem anderen ein Tun oder Unterlassen zu verlangen (Anspruch), unterliegt der Verjährung.“

Ein Anspruch ist gem. der Legaldefinition in § 194 Absatz 1 BGB ein Recht, von einem anderen ein Tun oder Unterlassen zu verlangen.


Persönlich bekannt

I have always found it confusing that persons appearing (die Erschienenen) before a notary may be described as ausgewiesen durch Personalausweis or persönlich bekannt.  It makes it look as if there is a big difference between the two, but I don’t think there is. It isn’t a case of a) I saw the person’s passport and here is the number and b) an old acquaintance.

I dread to think how I used to translate this years ago, when I encountered it more often.

In fact there’s a good explanation on LEO, (by wienergriessler), as sometimes happens:

Jein: “dem Notar von Person bekannt” kann heißen, dass die Person sich bei einer früheren Beurkundung schon mit Ausweis/Pass “ausgewiesen” hat; der Notar darf aber m.W. auch dann “von Person bekannt” schreiben,wenn er die Person aus seinem persönlichen Kontakt kennt,ohne den Ausweis gesehen zu haben
(Beispiel: Ein Richter, den der Notar aus dem Gericht kennt, will etwas beurkunden lassen. Dann darf der Notar auch schreiben: von Person bekannt)

So it seems that in case b) the notary has copied out the ID/passport number before, in most cases.

I was reminded of this some time ago when I looked at Diatopische Variation in der deutschen Rechtssprache, by Brammbilla/Gerdes/Messina. I turned to pp. 314 ff., Recht in Bayern:

Wie die Untersuchung des Korpus ergibt, verwenden die bayerischen Notare nach 1899 die vorher in Bayern übliche Formulierung mir nach Namen, Stand und Wohnort bekannt nicht mehr, sondern nur noch die bayernunspezifische Formulierung mir persönlich bekannt.

I like the word bayernunspezifisch. But the earlier formulation made it clear to me what the wording means.

The book immediately gets very exciting on the subjects of Bavarian weights and measures (‘Das Dezimal betrug in Bayern ein hundertstel Tagwerk und das wiederum 34,07 Quadratmeter’), occupations and subject of contract (variant terms for potatoes and sausages).


Kausalgeschäft – the abstraction principle

Although we know about the abstraction principle in German contract law, we don’t often have to translate it.

Here is Markesinis on the principle:

We now come to what is one of the most intriguing peculiarities of German contract law. Indeed, Zweigert and Kötz, in their treatise, An Introduction to Comparative Law, p. 71, regard it as so distinctive as to argue that it gives the German legal system its characteristic style. … Many common lawyers, and indeed French lawyers,might be tempted to describe it more than just ‘distinctive’. ‘Un-necessary’ and ‘excessively abstract’ are words that have often been used; and not with(out) some justification.

German law notionally distinguishes between the legal transaction that creates the relationship of obligation (Verpflichtungsgeschäft) from (sic) the legal transaction which transfers, alters, extinguishes, or encumbers rights (Verfügungsgeschäft = disposition contract). This distinction is accompanied by an important sub-rule: the validity of the second transaction is independent from (sic) the validity of the first.The first tenet is known as the ‘principle of separation’ (Trennungsprinzip), while the second is referred to as the’principle of abstraction’ (Abstraktionsprinzip).

Basil S. Markesinis, Hannes Unberath, Angus Johnston, The German Law of Contract. A Comparative Treatise, 2nd ed. 2006, p. 27

Even the act of buying a newspaper, in German law, consists of two stages: the intention and the reciprocal handing over of paper and money.

The closest idea in English law is found in conveyancing, where the parties exchange contracts to buy/sell and some weeks later the property and payment are exchanged.

In my translation, the situation was that the Kausalgeschäft (= Verpflichtungsgeschäft) underlying a gift of money in return for a promise not to seek further payment was invalid, and so the gift was invalid too.

One way to do this would be to add a translator’s note explaining this peculiarity of German law. I decided to translate Kausalgeschäft as ‘underlying obligation’ and ‘obligational agreement’, adding ‘(a peculiarity of German law)’.

ProZ is often helpful here.  As long as you understand the German legal point, you can see which answers are helpful, just as when trying to find help in Dietl or Romain.

obiter dictum

I see that Obiter Dictum, das is now in the Duden.

(in einem Urteil eines obersten Gerichts) rechtliche Ausführungen zur Urteilsfindung, die über das Erforderliche hinausgehen und auf denen das Urteil dementsprechend nicht beruht

This had passed me by. And strictly speaking there is no hierarchy of binding decisions in case law in Germany, although it’s clear that some decisions are treated as binding the lower courts.

So here’s a quote from a decision of a Higher Administrative Court:
Oberverwaltungsgericht NRW, 16 E 648/15 (at marginal number 19!):

Denn der Beschluss des Bundesverfassungsgericht beschränkt sich auf ein obiter dictum, ohne die Bedenken näher zu begründen und ohne sich mit der seit langem gefestigten Rechtsprechung auseinanderzusetzen, die u. a. von verschiedenen Obergerichten eingehend mit der allgemeinen Bedeutung von Beweisverwertungsverboten im Gefahrenabwehrrecht begründet wird.

I don’t know if one would translate English obiter dictum as German Obiter Dictum – that depends on how familiar it has become and how much explanation the user of the translation needs.

The latest edition of Dietl/Lorenz EN-DE (7th) has the following – first you look under obiter and are sent to dictum – reminds me why paper bilingual law dictionaries are dreadful – I think Romain is even worse. Under dictum:

obiter dictum Lat (a saying by the way) gelegentliche Äußerung f, beiläufige Bemerkung f (e-r Rechtsansicht in den Entscheidungsgründen, auf der die Entscheidung selbst nicht beruht. Im Ggs. zu ratio decidendi nicht bindend).

And Romain EN-DE, 5th ed.

obiter dictum, dicta pl, lat Urteil Nebenbemerkung, nicht tragender Entscheidungsgrund

I don’t think Dietl is right to say that the obiter is found in the grounds for the decision. It is found somewhere in the text of the decision. Were it actually in the grounds, I wonder how obiter it would be?

via Burhoff Online


I was translating a text about local government in Germany. There are three levels of government: federal, Land and local. The local government authorities sometimes perform their own duties (Selbstverwaltung) and sometimes perform duties that higher authorities commission them to do (Fremdverwaltung).

Although Selbstverwaltung can be translated as self-government, and there is a right to it, I don’t find I get far with this term, and local autonomy works better.

Here’s the Basic Law, Article 28 (2), in the original:

(2) Den Gemeinden muß das Recht gewährleistet sein, alle Angelegenheiten der örtlichen Gemeinschaft im Rahmen der Gesetze in eigener Verantwortung zu regeln. Auch die Gemeindeverbände haben im Rahmen ihres gesetzlichen Aufgabenbereiches nach Maßgabe der Gesetze das Recht der Selbstverwaltung. Die Gewährleistung der Selbstverwaltung umfaßt auch die Grundlagen der finanziellen Eigenverantwortung; zu diesen Grundlagen gehört eine den Gemeinden mit Hebesatzrecht zustehende wirtschaftskraftbezogene Steuerquelle.

and in the ‘official’ translation by Tomuschat and Currie:

(2) Municipalities must be guaranteed the right to regulate all local affairs on their own responsibility, within the limits prescribed by the laws. Within the limits of their functions designated by a law, associations of municipalities shall also have the right of self-government according to the laws. The guarantee of self-government shall extend to the bases of financial autonomy; these bases shall include the right of municipalities to a source of tax revenues based upon economic ability and the right to establish the rates at which these sources shall be taxed.

Translated by: Professor Christian Tomuschat and Professor David P. Currie
Translation revised by: Professor Christian Tomuschat and Professor Donald P. Kommers in cooperation with the Language Service of the German Bundestag

They translate ‘Länder, Kreise und Gemeinden’ as ‘Land, county and municipality’ (intelligently avoiding the plural of Land and also the use of ‘(federal) state’ so popular for Land).

A note on the word Gemeinde: it is most often translated as municipality nowadays, the US American preference. Local authority is more British. I also like the term commune – they are colloquially called Kommunen in German – but I believe I am out on a limb here. There are various categories of these local authorities, but fortunately I didn’t need to go into that.

The term Fremdverwaltungsaufgaben was more problematic, and I was glad to find transferred duties in a useful article on the German Law Archive site, Local Government Administration in Germany, by Dieter Haschke.

Transferred sphere of activities of the municipalities

The registrar’s office performs all the important tasks in a municipality: publishing banns, performing marriage ceremonies and issuing birth and death certificates are state tasks that the Federation or the Land have transferred to the municipalities by virtue of a law. State control is extended to legal and expert supervision with the entitlement to issue instructions under certain conditions.

The following administrative areas are also part of the transferred sphere of activity: …

I don’t really like sphere of activity (Aufgabenbereich), but in legal translation you don’t always finish up with a natural-sounding term.

The German Law Archive site has been updated recently and is well worth a look.


Grundsätzlich can have two completely different meanings – see the quote from Philip Slotkin below.


This sign at Berlin Hauptbahnhof (formerly Anhalter Bahnhof) shows the problem of translating the word grundsätzlich into English.

This sentence is one of those that are not translated into English on the sign – no wonder!

Zur Verbesserung der Sauberkeit und aus Rücksichtnahme auf Nichtraucher ist das Rauchen in diesem Bahnhof grundsätzlich nicht gestattet.

(To keep the station clean and in consideration for non-smokers, smoking is in principle/as a general rule/absolutely not permitted.)

But it goes on to say

Bitte benutzen Sie die gekennzeichneten Raucherbereiche.
Please use the designated smoking areas.

It therefore appears that grundsätzlich here means ‘in general’ or ‘with a few exceptions’.

The sign doesn’t define what kind of Mitwirkung is envisaged and who constitutes Ihr Bahnhofsteam.

Actually grundsätzlich sometimes means ‘on the whole’ and sometimes ‘with no exceptions’.

A few years ago, Philip Slotkin wrote an article for Netzblatt, the publication of the ITI German Network, about awkward words, and here is what he wrote about grundsätzlich:

This is an interesting one because it can convey two almost diametrically opposite ideas: “always (with no exceptions ever)” or “in principle (normally, but with the possibility of exceptions)”. Sometimes the word, sonorous and important though it sounds, is best deliberately omitted: muss auch der beim EPA zugelassene und in die entsprechende Liste eingetragene Vertreter grundsätzlich eine von dem Anmelder oder den Anmeldern, für die er handeln soll, unterzeichnete Vollmachtserklärung einreichen: “even professional representatives who are included in the EPO’s list must submit a declaration of authorisation signed by the applicant or applicants on whose behalf they are to act” (omitted; the meaning is “always, without exception”).
Das EPA kann grundsätzlich von jedem PCT-Staat als IPEA angegeben werden: “It is in principle open to any PCT State to specify the EPO as IPEA.” (That is, a PCT state does not have to do this.)

As Philip says, it is worth considering omitting the word altogether. But clients won’t always accept this. The number of times I’ve written ‘in principle’ in a translation and it sounded weird – but if the German text uses this silly word, it creates problems for the translator.

LATER NOTE: I’ve just had a similar problem with generell, and one suggestion which might also work for grundsätzlich is to translate it as ‘unless otherwise specified’.

“Wir sind da ein Rechtsstaat”

There’s been some discussion of how Angela Merkel responded to a Palestinian girl who spoke very fluently of her situation but afterwards began to cry, apparently in the stress of the moment. Merkel took the line that Germany can’t take all immigrants without exception, because there are too many. In a TV interview ranging over the political situation before the summer break, Merkel defended her statement, saying Germany is a Rechtsstaat. From Die Zeit:

In diesem Zusammenhang verteidigte Merkel ihre Reaktion auf ein weinendes Mädchen aus dem Libanon. “Ich finde, die Geste war in Ordnung.” Sie könne ja nicht Menschen, mit denen sie diskutiere, sagen, “weil du jetzt die Bundeskanzlerin getroffen hast, ist dein Schicksal schneller zu lösen als das von vielen, vielen anderen”, sagte Merkel. “Wir sind da ein Rechtsstaat.”

The Local translates this as follows:

“I think the gesture was fine,” Merkel, 61, said Sunday.

She said it would be wrong to tell people “just because you met the chancellor, we can resolve your case faster than many, many other people’s”.

“We are a state under the rule of law,” she said.

I often use that translation for Rechtsstaat, but it seems to me that state under the rule of law puts the wrong emphasis here: it emphasizes that the individual has rights and can enforce them at court, whereas Merkel is emphasizing law as a system that needs to be enforced. Maybe constitutional state would work better here.

This problem is particularly acute for interpreters, who have to translate this kind of thing off the cuff, and may also encounter references to the Third Reich as Unrechtsstaat: however you translate it, it tends to lose its rhetorical punch.

DIN terminology online

Beuth Verlag publishes standards, and on the few occasions I would have liked to use one, they were too expensive for me.

Now the publisher has put DIN terminology online free of charge.

The first site gives the translations of terms used in norms, the second gives more information such as definitions, notes and examples, but it requires registration:

DIN-TERM online
DIN-TERMinologieportal (registration needed)

Thanks, Marc!