Beleidigung, defamation, insult, assault

In English and U.S. law, defamation is nearly always a tort, not a crime. It consists, loosely speaking, in communicating to a third party some fact about the victim that tends to lower his or her reputation among right-thinking people. If the fact is true, that is a complete defence. Thus, three people are needed. One form, libel, is in permanent form (often writing), and the other, slander, is not.
In German law, there is also defamation, and the word Diffamierung can be used. The two forms of defamation differ in seriousness, but both can be either permanent or impermanent, in speech or in writing. To distinguish them, therefore, libel and slander won’t do.These two offences (üble Nachrede and Verleumdung) are part of a group of offences headed Beleidigung. These offences also include insult, for which only two people are needed, and a form of assault – if you indicate your disrespect for someone by spitting in their face, this is also covered, and I am calling it assault, although the problem with that is that the English reader may not realize its connection to insult. There are a couple of other offences, such as insulting the dead.

How, then, to translate the heading Beleidigung? I used to ask my students this question with the example of a list of crime statistics. My answer would have been Insult, assault and defamation.

Now, in the crime statistics summary, I find Insult, assault and battery. That is very good, but what has happened to the defamation? It has completely disappeared.

In the Federal Ministry of Justice’s translation of the Criminal Code (via German Law Archive), the heading for the group of offences is the misleading Insult, üble Nachrede is translated as malicious gossip (whereas it can be in writing or oral) and Verleumdung as defamation (which applies equally to both terms).

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