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German Legal Translation

Great online terminology resources for German legal translation

German legal translation

The subject of German legal translation is usually included under the heading of “general translation” rather than “technical translation”.

However, I would say that legal translation is a very specialized field indeed, with a lot of subject-specific terminology and phraseology.

You have to do more than simply translate a German text into English – you also need a solid grasp of the subject matter.

German law is different....

There's an added complication when it comes to German legal texts – different systems of law:

  • German (and most continental European) law is codified law (civil law jurisdiction). It has its origins in Roman law and was strongly influenced by Napoleonic laws after 1830.
  • Anglo-Saxon countries (US, UK, Australia etc.) have a system of common law.

Luckily for the German translator working in Europe, much national law defers to European law which is applicable to all member countries of the EU, both English and German-speaking countries. How this will change following the dreaded Brexit, no one knows....

The European Commission issues an official EU terminology database of the legal terminology used within the European Union.

But when dealing with national law in a German-speaking country, research will often be needed.

In general, because the systems of law in German-speaking and Anglo-Saxon countries differ, translating German legal terms into English often requires some explanation as well as translation, and you need to be aware of “official”, accepted English translations for specific German legal terminology.

Finding a German legal dictionary

The word on the net is that it’s hard to find a good online German legal translation dictionary or glossary, but that the LEO online German English dictionary is probably as good as any, if just for the contributor discussions. I’d have to agree there.

But don't forget, there are significant differences in legal terminology between Germany, Austria and Switzerland – we're back to Context! Context! Context!

For example, I recently had to research the term Sperrschein.

I wondered why it wasn't turning up in my dictionaries until I realized this is an Austrian term - Germany uses Vinkulierung (restricted transferability - form of bank guarantee often part of leasing contracts).

Anyway, I've tracked down the following German legal translation glossaries and dictionaries which I hope you'll find a useful starting point:

TIP! If you have a German legal document which needs translating into English – e.g. marriage certificates, contracts, German patent translation etc. – check if it needs to be translated by a certified translator (gerichtlich beeidigt – officially recognised by the courts).

Legal terminology: bilingual glossaries

German law
  • Glossary of German laws & legal terms - useful if limited overview of German laws.
  • WIPO Pearl – the World Intellectural Property Organisation’s Multilingual Terminology Portal, offering access to scientific and technical terms derived from patent documents.
  • TERMDAT - Swiss Federal Administration’s terminology database.
  • Ju-Lex - Glossary of criminal justice in Europe.
  • Translegal World Law Dictionary Austria -  Translegal is a translation agency working with universities to produce online multilingual law dictionaries. This Austrian version - in cooperation with the University of Innsbruck - is due to go online in winter 2020 and will contain over 7,000 Austrian legal terms.
  • Translegal World Law Dictionary Germany - in cooperation with the Georg-August University of Göttingen -  is already available, although anything but the most basic version is subscription-based.
  • Translegal World Law Dictionary Switzerland - in cooperation with the University of St. Gallen - is also due to go online in winter 2020, and will include over 7,000 Swiss legal terms.
  • European e-Justice Portal - overview of existing glossaries and multilingual thesaurus at European level. They include the comparative multilingual legal vocabulary (VJM), a collection of multilingual terminological data records and multi-systems covering more than 23 languages and 30 EU legal systems. It offers very detailed information including definitions, notes on comparative law, and legal references (legislation, case law, doctrine of national, EU and international legal systems). Access is via IATE.

German monolingual sources

  • Lexicon of Family Law - unfortunately only in German, provided by a firm of lawyers in Munich.
  • Rechtslexikon24 - Another monolingual German lexicon with over 6,000 German legal terms compiled by a large community of contributors.

English monolingual sources

  • The German Law Archive - an archive of German legal cases, statutes, literature and bibliographies translated into English - a great reference source for your German legal translation queries.
  • The World Legal Information Institute - now this is a great resource, a goldmine of German legal translation terminology and itself an index of links to German legislation, statutes and court reports, all in English translation.
  • The Austrian Federal Chancellery publishes all the Austrian laws which have currently been translated into English. Great for cross referencing purposes.

Law societies

  • The German Law Journal- a free monthly US publication containing peer-reviewed commentaries on developments in German, European and International law. The articles are in English and may well be of interest for German translators specializing in German legal translation.
  • The Anglo-German Law Society - promotes dialogue between English and German law students, academics, professionals and universities, with the aim of helping members to practice in both legal systems. It offers networking opportunities for sharing experiences and expertise, regular meetings, a monthly newsletter, as well as internships at member practices. (For translators with a legal background, perhaps a good source of clients?)
  • EUR-Lex - the European law portal, newly revamped. Provides free access to European Union law and other public documents in 23 EU languages. Simple and advanced search functions.

TIP! I often suggest the following sentence be inserted into a translated German legal text:

"In the event of any conflict or contradiction between the German version of this contract and its English translation, the original German version is legally binding."

Not an excuse for lax translation, but instead clarity for all parties to the contract.

If you work in German legal translation...

Most professional translators are thorough and precise and will make every effort to ensure that a term has been properly translated – it’s the nature of the profession.

But even so, if you are a German translator specializing in German legal translation then it’s worth considering professional indemnity insurance, and adding a disclaimer to the foot of your translated texts.... just in case!

Do you know of a good German legal glossary?

If you'd like to recommend a good German legal glossary, then we'd love to hear from you.

Please use the form below (I will NOT pass your details on to anyone!) to submit your suggested source, and we'll add it to the list.

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Joanna Scudamore-Trezek

I'm a German to English translator living and working in Vienna, Austria. I turn German texts into clear and accessible English, allowing clients to present their stories, ideas and information to a completely new audience. My business and marketing clients rely on me to get their message across clearly and effectively.  How can I help you today?

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