The rule of law / Der Rechtsstaat

Just a brief note on a big topic. Language Log takes up the topic of the rule of law, mentioning that President Bush often omits the direct article. So here are some unrelated notes on the term.

German political speeches often contain the term der Rechtsstaat, which the interpreter will render using variations on the rule of law or constitutional.

The term the rule of law is particularly associated with (although not coined by) A.V.Dicey. It is the third of the definitions given by the OED:

bq. rule of law: (a) with a and pl. : a valid legal proposition; (b) with the : a doctrine, deriving from theories of natural law, that in order to control the exercise of arbitrary power, the latter must be subordinated to impartial and well-defined principles of law; (c) with the : spec. in English law, the concept that the day-to-day exercise of executive power must conform to general principles as administered by the ordinary courts.

Here’s a definition of Rechtsstaat from Alpmann Brockhaus (their software is so much better than Creifelds’):

bq. Rechtsstaat: ein Staat, in dem die Ausübung der Staatsgewalt durch Recht und Gesetz geregelt und begrenzt wird und dessen Ziel die Gewährleistung von Gerechtigkeit im staatlichen und staatlich beeinflussten Bereich ist.
Obwohl das Rechtsstaatsprinzip anders als Demokratie, Republik, Sozialstaat und Bundesstaat in Art.20 GG nicht ausdrücklich erwähnt wird, wird es allgemein den in Art.20 Abs.1 GG genannten Staatsformmerkmalen hinzugerechnet.
© Alpmann Brockhaus Fachlexikon Recht, 2004 [CD-ROM].

The two are quite a good match, but interpreters can run into difficulties when the speaker suddenly contrasts the Rechtsstaat with the Unrechtsstaat, usually referring to Germany in the Third Reich. The play on words doesn’t seem possible to preserve.

2 thoughts on “The rule of law / Der Rechtsstaat

  1. I translate from Dutch into English for the Dutch government, and on several occasions I’ve seen “rechtsstaat” (the Dutch cognate of the German word) contrasted with another type of state (in the sense of “country”). At the department where I work, we sometimes translate “rechtsstaat” as “state under the rule of law”, which is admittedly unwieldy but makes it easier to solve this problem.

    Great blog!

  2. Thanks, David. Yes, that’s what I meant, ‘a state under the rule of law’. The brain is going, I’m afraid. It’s a good match.
    The German problem is the use of ‘Unrechtsstaat’, which is more than ‘a state not under the rule of law’ – it’s a tyrannical state. I just looked in Langenscheidt (e-Großwörterbuch) and see the term is actually in there, as ‘something like “police state”‘.

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