Translating court names/”Bundesgerichtshof” auf Englisch

Translating court names is a complex matter. So here is just one court name to discuss.

In a newspaper article reporting on a decision of the Bundesgerichtshof (BGH) or the Bundesverfassungsgericht (BVerfG), you wouldn’t need to use the German name.

Bundesgerichtshof is usually translated as Federal Court of Justice. That is the term recommended by the Auswärtiges Amt. I don’t think we actually have to use their recommendations if they’re no good, but this one has a history and is widely used. One source of court name recommendations, plus diagram, is a PDF file on the Bundesjustizministerium site. And here is a page at the Auswärtiges Amt with terminology PDFs, including Deutsche Gerichtsbezeichnungen und ihre Übersetzungen in zehn Sprachen – German court names translated into ten languages (they also have a nice file on civil service terms).

I commented in an earlier entry that one of the IPKAT writers used German Supreme Court. In the comments, Birgit said that German Federal Court of Justice and German Federal Supreme Court are both commonly used for BGH, but for her, the former sounds like the Bundesverfassungsgericht (recommended translation: Federal Constitutional Court) and therefore confuses the reader.

The opposite seems true to me. To me, Supreme Court immediately reminds me of the Supreme Court of the USA, which is like the BGH and the BVerfG combined. If anything, Supreme Court makes me think of the Bundesverfassungsgericht.

The only problem I have with Federal Court of Justice is that it doesn’t immediately communicate a meaning. And of course, the word federal might confuse someone in the USA, where there are both state and federal legal systems and the distinction is different from the distinction in Germany.

I had a look at a BGH decision last week which was widely reported in English newspapers. It was a decision that euthanasia could be acceptable in certain circumstances (the word euthanasia is associated in Germany with a euphemism used in the Third Reich, so Sterbehilfe is preferred). If you do a Google search on German court euthanasia you can see a number of articles referring to the BGH. Examples:

A top German court … the Federal Court of Justice (BBC)
Germany’s federal high court … the federal court of justice … Germany’s highest civil court (Irish Times)
Germany’s Federal Court of Justice … the federal tribunal (

The only reference to Supreme Court I could find was in an older article which actually meant the Bundesverfassungsgericht.

However, stories like these can usually be traced back to one dpa report, so the results may be biased.

The situation is complicated, of course, by the fact that England now has a Supreme Court, formerly the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords, which is pretty close to the BGH in function, although the Court of Appeal deal with more cases and is also an equivalent.

Actually, England always had a Supreme Court, or I would not be a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales. This term means the Crown Court, the High Court and the Court of Appeal – not the House of Lords and not the magistrates’ and county court. It must still exist, which is a bit of an anomaly, in that the term Supreme Court in one meaning excludes the House of Lords and in the other meaning is its successor. The portmanteau one is the Supreme Court of Judicature, and the new one the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

Do these language changes that seem to happy so often in the UK mean the terminology changes, as in the UK or at least England and Wales the term claimant is now used instead of plaintiff? But even if the time comes when German Federal Supreme Court is understood correctly in England, it won’t alter the fact that it is confusing in the rest of the world.

How you handle the name of a German court in an English text varies, of course, depending on the purpose of the text and the knowledge of the likely reader. In most contexts, I would advise leaving the German name in there somewhere, because if the English name used is ambiguous and the translation gets back to Germany, it saves confusion. Take the latest IPKAT entry (I like the first sentence), where we read of a German district court. District court has different meanings within the USA and elsewhere, so the fact that Amtsgericht is named in German is helpful. There is later a reference to the Regional Court of Berlin, which emphasizes that District Court is indeed being used for the Amtsgericht.

LATER NOTE: Here is a weird example of BGH, in an article about a BGH decision posted on a site connected with the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (Federal Ministry of Education and Research) and also here – it uses two terms for BGH without making it clear that these are synonyms:

Federal Supreme Court allows preimplantation diagnosis

… This opinion was shared by both the Berlin Regional Court, which dealt with the case in May 2009, as well as the Federal Court of Justice. Now, the 5th Senate of the Supreme Court in Leipzig concluded on 6 July that the doctor was not in breach of the Embryo Protection Act.

10 thoughts on “Translating court names/”Bundesgerichtshof” auf Englisch

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