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We’re used to relying on English as the language of international communication. A large proportion of educated German speakers, and almost all who are involved in international business, are comfortable with our language. Nonetheless, when it comes down to signing a contract, providing it in the German language gains a lot of good will. Germans are proud of their culture, and they value precision and security. When they’re confident of understanding what they’re agreeing to, negotiations proceed more smoothly.
Important differences exist between German law and law derived from the British system (including US, Australian, and Canadian law). The British legal system relies heavily on common law, a system of traditions and precedents that doesn’t always depend on written legislation. Germany makes heavy use of codified law, written down in books, and relatively little use of tradition. German legal language is very precise, and it carries meanings which even native speakers won’t catch if they don’t have legal training.
The perils of mistranslation
Computer translation is out of the question for binding agreements. Misunderstandings from bad translations are a constant source of humor, but they aren’t so funny when they lead to long, expensive legal battles. The translator has to be skilled in both languages and understand legal usage.
In ordinary German, the word “unverzüglich” simply means “immediate” or “immediately.” In legal German, it has the more precise meaning of “without intentional or negligent delay.” Using the German term will make an agreement’s intention clearer to the parties involved.
Little things like umlauts and gender can completely change the meaning of a sentence. The expression “das psychologische Moment” originally meant “the psychological factor.” It was mistranslated into English as “the psychological moment,” which would have been “der psychologische Moment.” This error produced an elegant new expression, but most mistakes aren’t so fortunate.
The importance of agreement
Translating an agreement means, of course, that the English-speaking parties need to know exactly what the German text means. The English and German translations have to agree in every detail, or complications are likely to follow. German law allows little wiggle room in contracts. Failure to understand is rarely a sufficient excuse.
German is the principal language of Austria as well as Germany, and it’s one of the official languages of Switzerland. The spoken Swiss German is very different from High German, but written German for legal matters is essentially the same language used in Germany. Specific terms may differ in each country, though.
The EU has decreased the differences among countries’ legal systems, but different traditions still play a role. Each country has a somewhat different approach to interpreting contracts. In Switzerland, a meeting of the minds is more important than the letter of the contract. Austria’s approach is closer to Germany’s, but differences in key terms can be important.
Balancing the languages
When a contract is drawn up in both languages, it’s necessary to say which version is authoritative. Saying outright that the English-language version is authoritative will give up much of the good will gained from the translation. Having the one in German be authoritative means that the English speakers had better be sure they understand exactly what the translation means under applicable law. A compromise is to specify that both versions are authentic, but priority will be given to one in case of discrepancy.
Agreement is easiest if a contract has as little specialized legal terminology as possible. Spelling out exactly what’s intended, in as many words as necessary, is better than having a concise contract that is hard to interpret.
Teck Language Solutions provides a broad range of translation services, including all the languages of the EU. To learn more about what we offer, please contact us.