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Legal culture and translations

A study of German and French legal texts

Updated on 20.07.2010
Specialist translations in the field of law demand special competences of the translator. Not only linguistic competence but also a great deal of specialist knowledge if required when legal texts are translated. Each national language shows itself in its legal traditions in contracts, documents and judgments.
In TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften (Internet Journal of Cultural Studies) Prof. em. Dr. Bernd Spillner from the university of Duisburg-Essen examines the "interlingual contrasts between directive legal texts" and the peculiarities that are to be concluded from this for German – French. ( )
Spillner is not concerned with translations of statutes, but with texts from the field of statutory regulations. Whereas the language of laws has many common features through the legal tradition common to continental Europe, according to Spillner the language in the legal system of statutory regulations, decrees and administrative regulations is characterised more heavily by the respective country's tradition and cultures.
By means of directive text types (laws, decrees, statutory regulations, export regulations, etc.) Spillner wants to work out the differences in the technical corpora of the German and French legal language.
First of all he presents in detail literature on the theory of translation and from the translation practice for various specialist fields, not only for legal texts. With regard to translations from the field of law Spillner also refers to the language combinations Danish/German and Italian/German.
Spillner then deals in detail with contrasts in German and French statutory instruments, he examines the respective terminology, the text structure and the syntax using the example of the "ordinance" in German and in French.
Spillner reports that even if two text types in two languages are classified as comparable, there are linguistic, stylistic, textual and subject-oriented contrasts that reflect the different legal traditions and administrative cultures.
This is why Spillner points out in conclusion: "In the development of a transnational legal system – such as, among other places, in present-day Europe – it is essential to be mindful of interlingually different terminological peculiarities and the interculturality of text types."
What is also important for translators and customers is Spillner's indication that varieties are possible within a language in different countries or cultures as well – we only have to think of French or English as official languages on different continents, but also, e.g. Portuguese in Portugal and in Brazil.
This makes it particularly important to commission qualified translators with legal translations, because only these guarantee the scrutiny and implementation of an order not only with regard to the language but also with regard to the terminology typical for the country.
More on the subject of German – French legal texts can be found in Jakob Wüst: Der französische Einfluss auf die kontinentaleuropäische Rechtssprache (The French Influence on the Continental-European Legal Language), also published in TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaft Nr. 17,



A home for wallflowers

Translating under ideal conditions:

Article dated 02.07.2010
The Europäisches Übersetzerkollegium (EÜK) in Straelen
"It is great to be together with people who also work with and in language."
This is a comment by the translator Bettina Münch, who will be visiting the Europäisches Übersetzerkollegium (EÜK) in Straelen next year as translator in residence.
(Bettina Münch in a portrait in the Frankfurter Rundschau:
The Übersetzerkollegium is intended to be a home for the "wallflower of the literature business". Translators meet there – mostly at night in the kitchen, as Bettina Münch confirms as well, "because most of them are night owls" – to exhange experience, to swap the tricks and knacks of the translator's craft.
Elmar Tophoven, the Beckett translator, wanted to provide a location for the "bridge builders" of world literature in the historical tradition of the mediaeval translators school in Toledo.
Together with Klaus Birkenhauer, the then chair of the association of literary translators, Tophoven tirelessly pressed ahead with the establishment of an "earthly Elysium for translators", a "new Toledo school", and, at last, in 1978 the foundation was celebrated of the Europäisches Übersetzer-Kollegium Nordrhein-Westfalen in Straelen e.V. as the first and largest international working centre in the world for professional translators of literature and non-fiction.
Literary translators from all over the world come to Straelen with a translation contract from a publisher in order to use the extensive library and the association's technical aids, but in particular to meet other translators.
Various institutions in the Übersetzerkollegium support the temporary residents. For example, there is a 'translator in residence' who, on the one hand, brings the guests together in the Kollegium and welcomes the new arrivals and, on the other, carries out public relations work through readings and workshops.
In the atrium discussions, German authors are brought together with their foreign translators twice every year. The discussions between authors and translators are intended to honour the artistic work of the literary translators and to contribute to avoiding mistakes and misunderstandings in the transfer of language and culture. In 2009 the author Uwe Tellkamp met the translators of his award-winning work Der Turm (The Tower). The Tower translators came from 11 countries: Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Italy, Catalonia, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Spain and Hungary. In 2010 the translators of the book Corpus Delicti by Juli Zeh will be meeting the author. This time the translators come from Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Italy, Croatia, New Zealand, Poland, Sweden, Taiwan and Turkey.
The annually award translation prize is intended to honour outstanding achievements in the field of literary translations from German into another language, or from another language into German. This year the prize went to Dr Sabine Baumann from Frankfurt and Main for a new translation of Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin from Russian and for the 1300-page Pushkin commentary by Vladimir Nabokov, which is available for the first time in German and which Baumann translated from English.

The world of languages:

What actually are Finno-Ugrian studies?

Article dated 19.05.2010
Finno-Ugrian studies are concerned with the Uralian language family, which today consists basically of Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian.

Everyone who is interested in languages and has heard these languages at least once recognises clearly: they sound different from Romance or Nordic languages!
This language group is an enclave in Europe, it has a special position in that it is not part of the Indo-European language corpus. Originally based in the Urals region, the languages migrated with their speakers; it is assumed that the Finnish branch is native to the present area of settlement, while Hungarian only arrived in Hungary with the Magyars in about the 10th century CE. Correspondingly, Estonian, unlike the neighbouring Latvian and Lithuanian, is not one of the Baltic languages.

In the following centuries the languages drifted so far apart that the differences within the Finno-Ugrian languages today are very great, which means that Hungarians and Finns can no longer understand each other – in spite of their origins in a single language family.
This does not prevent Finns and Hungarians dealing with each other very politely. For example, in an anecdote that is told in both languages each says that the others are more erudite and clever:
"The Finns report that they came together with the Hungarians from the east, from the Urals, with horses, wagons, bag and baggage. At last they came to high mountains (the Carpathians), where they found a sign saying: "Straight ahead for Hungary". And all those who could read and weren't too lazy climbed the mountains and came to Hungary. The others turned to the right (to the north) and ended up in Finland.
In the Hungarian version the sign at the foot of the mountains says "Turn right for Finland", and they say that this is how the cleverer ones, who could read, came to end up in Scandinavia."
(taken from: )

You can study Finno-Ugrian in Germany! Research and teaching in the fields of literary studies, linguistics and regional and cultural studies are represented at the universities of Göttingen, Hamburg and Munich:
Apparently, the development of Finnish into a global language is practically impossible to hold back. As long ago as 1989 Richard Lewis found the following arguments for this:

1. We are talking about a language that is fundamentally logical. Rules are complied absolutely, there are no exceptions.

2. The language is melodious. In other words, it is a pleasure to listen to. This comes from the predominant number of vowels, which prevent dull combinations of consonants. Occasionally suggestions are made that some vowels should be exported to the Czech Republic, where there is a permanent shortage of them, and some Czech consonants could be imported in their place –  but negotiations were broken off at a very early stage. The Finns wanted to have nothing to do with a language in which ice-cream is called "zmrzlina", and the Czechs were wary of a language in which it's known as "jäätelöä".

3. Finnish is a concise language. A single Finnish word can mean many things in English. Why waste time saying "Committee on the implementation of negotiations on the suspension of armed hostilities" if you can use a single word like "aseleponeuvottelutoimikunta"?

4. Learning Finnish gives you self-confidence. Anyone who can learn Finnish can learn absolutely everything.

5. Finnish has longer and better curses than every other language.

All the same, there are a few obstacles to learning Finnish, namely the grammar:
"Direct object
Most Finnish grammar books are particularly easy to understand when they deal with the "direct object". It goes roughly like this: a direct object in Finnish (generally known as the "accusative object") can be in the nominative, genitive or partitive. To make everything more comprehensible, nominative and genitive are called "accusative". In addition, there is a real accusative, but this does not have a special name. Great care is necessary when grammatical designations are construed. If you see the word "accusative" , it can mean nominative or genitive, but never accusative; the designation "nominative" can mean accusative, or perhaps nominative; "genitive" can mean accusative, or simply only genitive, while "partitive" is always partitive, except where it could be accusative."
(go to: )

Hungarians also appear to want to confirm their separate path grammatically – true to their membership of the Finnish language family:
"Grammatically, Hungarian gives the impression of turning away from European customs with the whole defiance of an only child", comments Wilhelm Droste in his article "The waywardness of the Hungarian language  – a declaration of love" in the Neuer Pester Lloyd, a German-language Hungarian newspaper (go to: )
And Droste goes on to say that learning Hungarian is "agonisingly difficult. Just as Hungarians are hardly ever able to get rid completely of their accent and other peculiarities when they learn a foreign language, it is practically impossible for foreigners to absorb Hungarian as second nature. … The language is like a barricade behind which the nation can entrench permanently with all its secrets and idiosyncrasies. In the battle for confident self-determination it is more suitable than all the weapons and gold in the world."

The Balassi Institute for Hungarian Culture is searching for the most beautiful word in the whole country on the occasion of the 250th birthday of Ferenc Kazinczy, Hungary's most important language reformer. People are being asked to find their favourite Hungarian word. The current chart with the favourites can be seen at .
The Pester Lloyd (29-2009 dated 17.07.2009) commented:
"The ears of foreigners living here ring constantly when the Finno-Ugrian language tsunami in its Magyar form, a mixture of wild romantic sing-song and lingual rigidity, sweeps over them. And if you asked expats what is the most Hungarian of all Hungarian words, it would most probably by the omnipresent "nincs" ("we haven't got that"), often patronised by a lying "sajnos" (unfortunately), which can be best translated into German with the Berlin expression "Hamwanich", and is just as impertinent. But "nincs" sounds just as ugly as it is and is certainly not threatened by extinction either.
… In 2004 a similar poll took place in Germany. The winners were "Habseligkeiten" ("belongings"), ahead of "Geborgenheit" ("feeling of security"), "lieben" ("to love") and "Augenblick" ("moment") as well as "Rhabarbermarmelade" ("rhubarb jam"). ( )


The tips for travellers to Estonia from, Estonia's tour guide at first hand, provide an insight into the 'Estonian soul':
"Things that travellers to Estonia should know
- In most cafes going to the bar or counter to order is the rule. You place your order and it's then brought to your table. (Service is only standard in restaurants.)
- Inflexible tourists have been seen sitting at the table hungry until the place closes –  no-one thought it was their job to explain the custom of ordering to them. See the following for how things can get that far …:
-  Estonians are friendly people but are diffident in the presence of strangers. Don't expect to fall into conversation easily with them. And a great deal must happen before they talk to you themselves.
- Flowers are always the right thing. If Estonians invite you to a small or big party at home bring flowers for the lady of the house. All types of flowers of welcome –  as long as they're not red carnations. As beautiful as these flowers are, they remind Estonians of the funerals of socialist party leaders.
- Take your shoes off. It's usual in Estonia to take your shoes off when visiting people at home. In this way you show respect to the housewife who struggles day after day to keep the house clean (or at least pays for professional help). In any case, going into the living room with your street shoes on is regarded as gross.
- Supermarkets are open every single day of the year, even at Christmas. (There is no practical excuse for turning up at a family party without flowers.)
- Don't hug people. Simply don't do it. Shaking hands is known, but this is done sparingly. Again: never hug an Estonian at all. Except in moments of getting to know someone intimately.

- The Estonian language has no genders and no future (grammatically)."
( )



Translations and quality management:

From the Japanese Kaizen to DIN EN ISO 9001:2008

Article dated 30.04.2010
Modern quality management (QM) has become a standard in DIN EN ISO 9001:2008.

The translation agency Eurolingua Übersetzungen GmbH & Co KG is certified both in accordance with DIN EN ISO 9001:2008 and in accordance with DIN EN 15038 and faces up to the demands made on modern service providers.

The basis of the quality management system is the continuous improvement process (CIP), which was influenced by Kaizen, the Japanese philosophy for life and work.

Kaizen means 'change for the better'.
The initially philosophical approach to the pursuit of constant improvement started on its winning run by being transferred into economic concepts.
The approach was not innovation, with its spasmodic improvements, but gradual perfection in small steps. Not overloading customers with ever newer products, but the greatest customer satisfaction through the outstanding quality of products and services is the goal of continuous improvement processes.
Kaizen focuses above all on the human factor: well-qualified and committed employees form the foundation stone for a company's success; training and further training are not cost factors but an investment in the future.
Quality management ensures the process of continuous improvement through quality planning, quality control, quality assurance and quality improvement.

For a translation services provider such as Eurolingua Übersetzungen GmbH this means, for the realisation of the standards in DIN EN ISO 9001:2008 and DIN EN 15038, commitment to an effective and efficient quality management system in order to satisfy customers' requirements optimally, on schedule and continuously. In this way we ensure the greatest customer satisfaction.
This is guaranteed not only through a voluntary commitment to comply with the provisions of DIN EN 15038 Translation Services, but in addition to this through certification in accordance with DIN EN ISO 9001:2008, which means ongoing reviews and confirmation of the certification by an external body.

The exchange of cultures - history beyond DIN and EN: the Toledo school of translators
Article dated 16.04.2010
In his standard work Die Übersetzung  Georges Mounin points out that it is not at all surprising that the first known school of translators existed in Spain in the 12th century and for a period of a century and a half.
Ilija Trojanow and Ranjit Hoskoté describe Al-Andalus in Spain as the bearer of European culture throughout the Middle Ages. (Trojanow/Hoskoté: Kampfabsage, Munich 2009); and Toledo became the 'Baghdad of the west'.
The Toledo school of translators – Escuela de Traductores –  was founded by Archbishop Raimund of Toledo in the first half of the 12th century. As an interface between Arab, Jewish and Christian culture, Spain not only offered valuable manuscripts for translation, but also exerted a pull on scholars from the whole of Europe.
Among the famous translators in Toledo were above all Gerard of Cremona and Robert of Ketton, who made the first translation of the Koran into Latin in 1143.
Manuscripts were translated from Greek, Hebrew and Arabic. In Toledo, the system of 'collaborative translation' was developed for this purpose: a Jew or a Moslem translated the Arabic text orally into a Romance language, such as Castilian, and a Christian then translated this spoken version into written Latin.
Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, Galen, Plotinus and Proklos, the works of Maimonides and Averroes were all translated in Toledo.
In this way, impulses were spread from the brisk cultural exchange of Moslems, Jews and Christians that had a lasting effect on the modernity of Europe.
Trojanow and Hoskoté do not tire of pointing out that only the confluence of cultures creates intellectual and cultural progress. In Al-Andalus in particular they see, in the 800-year existence of this territory, the core and nucleus of modern Europe. They ascribe this not only to the influence of Arabic, but point out in particular that Islam itself experienced Persian, Indian and Greek influences.
The translators of Toledo – mediaeval service providers – link us to all these roots of the modern age.

Information from practice:
law and criminal law for translators and interpreters

Legal consequences under copyright laws arise not only from literary translations, copyright matters have to be taken into account for translations of functional texts and specialist translations. This applies to interpreting as well. Manuel Cebulla, a state-examined translator, studied commercial and media law and combines his knowledge acquired from many years of professional experience as an interpreter and translator with knowledge of the law, in order to write for the first time about copyright law for interpreters and translators in an academic, but also practical way:
Manuel Cebulla, Das Urheberrecht der Übersetzer und Dolmetscher, ISBN 978-3-86573-319-1, Berlin 2007
Manuel Cebulla has written a pertinent monograph on the subject of the criminal law in the field of linguistic mediation, which initially examines the norms on which the work of translation is based and the specific penalty norms. Cebulla also deals with non-governmental rules such as DIN standards, and the standards of the Association of German Translators (BDÜ). A scientifically and legally substantiated demarcation between interpreting and translating forms the basis for the explanation of possible punishable actions in practical translation work.  
Manuel Cebulla, Sprachmittlerstrafrecht. Die strafrechtliche Verantwortlichkeit der Dolmetscher und Übersetzer, ISBN 978-3-86573-285-9, Berlin 2007.
Online invoices with electronic signature
Article dated 21.03.2010
The following applies to online invoices: businesses may only claim the input tax shown in an invoice if the invoice shows a "qualified electronic signature". This is the consequence of s. 14(3) Turnover Tax Act, to provide verification of the validity and integrity of the contents of the invoice.
(3) The validity of the origin and the integrity of the contents of an invoice that is transmitted electronically must be guaranteed by

a qualified electronic signature or a qualified electronic signature with provider accreditation pursuant to the Signatures Act of 16 May 2001 (BGBl. I p. 876), which was amended by s. 2 of the Act of 16 May 2001 (BGBl. I p. 876), as may be amended from time to time, or

electronic data interchange (EDI) in accordance with Article 2 of Commission Recommendation 94/820/EC of 19 October 1994 relating to the legal aspects of electronic data interchange (Official Journal EC No L 338 p. 98), if the use of procedures that guarantee the validity of the origin and integrity of the data is provided for in the agreement on this data interchange.
For further information see:

Children play war – but how can peace be played?
Project: "Translation Achievements of Diplomacy and Media. Europe 1450–1789"

Conflict research teaches us: peace is not a passive state of simple forbearance, but an active process. But how can peace be achieved?

The joint project "Translation Achievements of Diplomacy and Media. Europe 1450–1789", sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, spans epochs and is concerned with the "translation services" of modern peace settlements. Questions of politics, art history and law are integrated on an interdisciplinary basis.

A research focus at the Institute for European History in Mainz is concerned with the substantiation metaphors in the period between the Treaty of Westphalia and the French revolution, and at the Congress of Vienna.
One of the three individual projects is highly interesting: "Problems of culture transfer in the relationships to the Osman empire".
A further focal point is formed by the subject "Misunderstandings and lack of knowledge in international and intercultural contexts". The question arises as to how far ignorance and lack of knowledge are deliberately produced in peace negotiations and treaties of the modern era in order to be able to legitimate and assert specific interests better.
The source foundation was drawn up among others by the Mainz project "European peace treaties of the pre-modern era online", which is supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG).

The preconditions of language use and the use of languages in peace treaties are being examined at the Institute for European Cultural History at the university of Augsburg.
The studies are based on the theory that certain languages were used as instruments for asserting political interest and to represent nations. It is to be clarified why and when Latin, French, or even German, were used. German in particular was used in certain European regions as a lingua franca and language of peace.

Another research focus in Augsburg is devoted to the "translations of peace treaties in bodies of history, editions and journals".  The texts of the treaties were copied throughout Europe, reproduced, translated and transmitted and in this way were a fixed component of the media landscape of the time.

For further information see:

Issuing invoices
Article dated 26.02.2010
This applies to translations as well: the delivery date must be shown in the invoice
When invoicing it must be noted that, following a change to the law, the tax authorities demand that the delivery date is shown as an item in the invoice. All the information that an invoice must contain is listed in s. 14(4) German Turnover Tax Act, see
It was long disputed whether a separate delivery or performance date represents an indispensable invoice element or not. The Turnover Tax Act, implementation regulations and utterances from the Federal Ministry of Finance permit both interpretations. The change in the law led to clarity, and the delivery date has to be shown as a matter of principle. And this applies of course to invoices from service providers such as translation agencies.

Cultural differences – difficult business negotiations
"The completely different linguistic, cultural and mental tradition of the Japanese in relation to western countries lead constantly to great difficulties in commercial and legal negotiations with Japanese partners (and in general with partners from Asia). If a Japanese businessman makes a European partner an offer in the framework of contract negotiations, and the latter does not say anything about it, the Japanese businessman regards the offer as accepted and the contract as concluded", because "according to the Japanese understanding of the law, when a person from Japan makes an offer he expects the other party to state explicitly that he wants to refuse the offer."
Interested readers can discover this and a lot more on the informative and entertaining website
on the "origin and development of languages". Otto Weikopf, a lawyer, rolls out his linguistic knowledge here, from prehistoric languages and language transmission through bush telegraphy through to the subjects of translating and translation problems.
Weikopf provides another example of 'difficult negotiations' resulting from cultural differences:
"In German and English, silence as a response to the question 'Will you marry me?' would be interpreted as uncertainty, but in Japanese as consent.
If you put this question to a woman in Nigeria (in Igbo, Niger-Congo language with 13 million speakers), if the woman stays it means she refuses, and consent if she runs away! - Who can understand women!"
New obligatory information in business emails

Article from the 13/06/2007
Since 1 January 2007 the same formal requirements as for business correspondence have applied to business emails. Information on company data such as trading name, supplement showing the legal form, location of branch, companies register number and the location of the commercial court ("Handelsgericht") is now mandatory.

This rule applies to public and private limited companies and to all companies registered in the companies register or that are governed by the German Commercial Code ("Handelsgesetzbuch").

It is the result from a law adopted by the German parliament on 10 November 2006 on the electronic trade register and the register of cooperative societies, and on the companies register.

The new rule governs external business communications via emails, irrespective of the number of
addressees of each mail. It covers invoices, offers, confirmations and acknowledgements of offers and enquiries, order and delivery notes and receipts. The sole exceptions are notifications and reports that are exchanged within an existing business relationship as completed forms. However, order forms must always contain the
above-mentioned information. 

Merchants who are subject to the provisions must comply with them
in accordance with their legal form. If this is not done, GmbHs (private limited companies), for example, can expect a fine of up to 5,000 euros. A warning because of unfair competition can be issued to all companies on non-compliance with the provisions.

New official languages for the European Union
Article from the 25/05/2007
Irish was included in the catalogue of official languages for the EU from 1 January 2007. Bulgarian and Romanian were also recognised as official EU languages through the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU on 01.01.2007.

There are now 23 official languages and 27 Member States in the EU:

> Bulgarian (BG)

> Czech (CS)

> Danish (DA)

> Dutch (NL)

> German (DE)

> English (EN)

> Estonian (ET)

> Finnish (FI)

> French (FR)

> Greek (EL)

> Hungarian (HU)

> Irish (GA)

> Italian (IT)

> Latvian (LV)

> Lithuanian (LT)

> Maltese (MT)

> Polish (PL)

> Portuguese (PT)

> Romanian (RO)

> Swedish (SV)

> Slovakian (SK)

> Slovenian (SL)

> Spanish (ES)


The official languages are important for communication between the EU's institutions and the Member States. EU legislation is written in all the official languages. Every citizen of the EU has the right to communicate with the political institutions of the EU in the official language(s) of his/her home country.


The official languages also play a part in the transposition of EU Directives. For example, if German products that are obliged to show the CE mark are exported to another EU Member State, the appropriate technical documentation usually has to be written in at least one of the official languages of the EU and the instructions for use must be available in the language of the users.


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