Translating terms for bodily harm

A few days ago, Carob (Not a Blog) had an entry on the German terms ‘gefährliche Körperverletzung’ (literally ‘dangerous bodily harm’) and ‘schwere Körperverletzung’ (literally ‘serious bodily harm’).

It was speculated that in many contexts, it would be natural to translate one of these as ‘grievous bodily harm’, at all events for the UK. Regardless of how precise the match was between the German term and the English term, it would be natural to take the most common English more-or-less equivalent.

As Carob is ‘(Not a Blog)’, I am not sure what its policy on acknowledged copying is, so I will just copy the whole thing here and see if they sue me.

bq. As with so many legal terms, there seem to be two schools of thought on translating these, with unfamiliar or familiar expressions flagging similarities or differences between the German law concepts and their counterparts in English-speaking jurisdictions.

bq. The unofficial translation of the Strafgesetzbuch provided by the Bundesministerium der Justiz highlights the differences, with dangerous bodily injury for gefährliche Körperverletzung and serious bodily injury for schwere Körperverletzung.

bq. Focusing on similarities, the German-Indian Extradition Treaty
(annexed here to this April’s extradition bill) has malicious wounding for gefährliche Körperverletzung and grievous bodily harm for schwere Körperverletzung.

bq. In instances like this, I’ve come round to favouring the familiar English terms where the context is relatively far removed from the nitty-gritty of German criminal law — as with my current example, which is a passing mention of recent crime trends in an article targeting the general public. A case report or similar would, I think, call for different treatment, possibly using the Ministry terminology cited above.

I could go on about this for many pages (perhaps people have stopped reading already). But here are a few points.

1. I agree there often seem to be two religious schools of legal translators: a) sounding more ‘native English’ or b) doing more justice to German law at the risk of sounding weird. I tend to the latter.

2. I also have a sliding scale, as I suppose everyone does, of how similar terms have to be before I’ll translate one by the other. For instance, I’ve never translated Rechtsanwalt as solicitor, although if it was a client’s practice to do so, I would. (After all, who cares, in this particular case?)

3. However, I completely agree on favouring familiar English terms where the context is more general. Obviously the target reader makes all the difference. Why should I translate the name of a criminal court dealing with a murder case at first instance with any precision in a newspaper article? The venue may be of interest, but if you just write ‘court’, the story itself makes it clear what kind of court it’s going to be.

4. I would not trust the German Federal Ministry of Justice’s translation of the Criminal Code without further research, based on previous experience.

5. I still don’t think we can avoid research, especially if two terms are being referred to. Looking at the German-Indian Extradition Treaty, the German terms are given opposite the English ones, so no confusion can arise.

6. Do the general public have more trouble with serious / dangerous bodily injury than with malicious wounding or grievous bodily harm? I think bodily harm and bodily injury, and also physical injury, are all terms widely used in criminal law (personal injury being a civil-law term).

7. Superficial research indicates a close similarity in meaning between GBH and schwere Körperverletzung. Körperverletzung and bodily harm both include the effects of obscene phone calls, incidentally. In English law, malicious wounding does not require a wound (i.e. breaking the skin). Malicious means intentional.

8. Gefährliche Körperverletzung, at a quick glance, has no close equivalent in English law. Dangerous refers to the means used (gun, knife, foot wearing shoe!), ambush, attack by several people or danger to life. This would encourage me to write dangerous rather than malicious. (There are some interesting terms for intention in English law, and malicious is one of them – you don’t have to be sneering to do something maliciously in the legal sense).

9. So we come back to each legal translator reinventing the wheel because materials are not reliable.

2 thoughts on “Translating terms for bodily harm

  1. My policy on acknowledged copying is just that: copy what you want so long as you acknowledge it. I’m grateful for you picking up on this anyway.

    I found myself nodding increasingly vigorously as I read through your comments, so we seem to agree. I’m talking about the general approach here, of course, since you’re the better judge of what comprises apt terminology in these matters; that’s why I ended on such a tentative note.

    The most important aspect to me is your point that we can’t really do without research. Even if anyone ever did supply a reliable dictionary to guide us, meanings shift so fast it wouldn’t stay that way for long.

  2. Thanks. I didn’t really think you’d mind me quoting… I have been meaning to comment for a couple of days now, but somewhat snowed under.

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