Legalese vs. Plain English/Juristensprache

Blade at Spada considers some legalese heavily criticized by the Campaign for Plain English and sheepishly confesses he understands it. So do I.

The Campaign for Plain English believes that it is possible to convey legal ideas in quotidian terminology, and cites the text below, one of m’learned friends’ finest, as an example of everything that is wrong about legal jargon. As a former lawyer Blade confesses, with some sheepishness, that it makes perfect sense to him, but he is going to reconsider the situation forthwith.

Meanwhile, the Tensor has found an error in his Ph.D. Diploma from the University of Washington, from which ‘the Year of Our Lord’ had been removed without the rest being adapted:

Given at Seattle, in the State of Washington, this twelfth day of June, two thousand and nine and of the University the one hundred and forty-ninth.

(Yes, I was able to guess what had been removed – but translators are used to that).

Translation glasses/Übersetzungsbrille

These glasses – not yet on the market – are intended to interpret what you hear and project it onto your retina so you can have a real-time conversation, at least if your languages are supported.

I can’t read Japanese, but this may be the source.

Here’s an article:

The NEC equipment comprises a script projector and microphone attached to the glasses, and a small computer that can be attached to the waist of a user. When two people with different mother tongues speak in their own languages, the projector displays expressions from both languages. NEC’s application of a technology to project images by casting light directly onto the retina is a world first. The retina transforms the optical information into a nerve signal, which is sent to the center of the brain via optic nerves.

I understand the last sentence as normal for vision.

Here’s the blog entry I got it from. It was tweeted by NOVALanguages of New York, who tweet masses of curious language links, so you may want to follow them.

I won’t be interested in this device. Being over sixty, I’ve already got too many aids, attachments and prostheses for other functions.

LATER NOTE: Google reveals more reports. The glasses are called Tele-Scouter. The halfbakery even reported it in 2003.

BDÜ on YouTube/BDÜ auf YouTube

BDÜ on YouTube – seems new. Professor Felix Mayer speaks to Fabio Proia (the Jutta Witzel/Chris Durban video I linked to recently comes from here). Mainly in German, with some Italian. Interview relates to legal translation, for example EU requirement that legal terms very specifically related to one legal system (AltoAdige/South Tyrol, Belgium, Austria, Germany) should be avoided.

Translegal Learner’s Dictionary of Law/Studentenwörterbuch zum englischen Recht

Translegal has put a learner’s dictionary of law online. The price is € 19.95 per year (corrected). There are 2,500 entries and there will be more.

Details of the dictionary show the editor as Matt Firth, who is British and educated in English and French law and English as a foreign language (to use an overbroad term), and has been involved in teaching English to foreign lawyers for many years now. There are also seven authors and a senior consultant, all highly qualified.

If you click on one of the words in the dictionary, you can see a definition and a warning that in order to see the full entry you need to pay the one-year licence fee. I haven’t done this yet, although I probably will.

The dictionary does look excellent. My quibbles are minor and follow below.

First of all, there is a page online comparing the entry for decree in Black’s Law Dictionary and in the Learn’s Dictionary of Law: go to this page and click on See the difference!

Now, I never succeed in convincing people that Black’s Law Dictionary is not the answer to all their problems. In my opinion it is far too wide and vague to be relied on. But it has improved since the seventh edition, the first one edited by Bryan Garner. I do think it is very deceptive advertising of TransLegal to quote the sixth or earlier edition on decree. But that edition too had a great reputation, and I think this quote shows the kind of old-fashioned and confused definition Black’s has always been full of (probably par for the course when it first came out) and of which there is distinctly less since Garner took over.

Having said that, the extract from the Learner’s Dictionary shows many sentence examples. The dictionary is apparently based on a number of concordances, but I imagine that many of the example sentences are not from corpora but invented as teaching material. Any student required to write legal English is going to need this kind of thing and this dictionary makes it available at the time it’s needed.

I have a minor quibble on the note that decree to mean judgment is considered rather outdated, but in the US it is used for a divorce decree. But it’s used in the UK for divorce decree too! I do not know if the dictionary contains a lot of UK/US distinctions, but they are clearly a problem. I think lawyers will probably learn mainly UK or mainly US usage when they are studying in or about those countries, and not from a learner’s dictionary – perhaps a big reference work is needed to consult occasionally, but I don’t think that exists. In a recent comment, Matt Firth made a remark about teaching UK/US legal English that also relativizes the issue, although I don’t think I see things exactly the same way he does, but it would take ages to explain.

Two final points: 1) TransLegal call this the world’s first learner’s Legal English dictionary:

Our research methods ensure that not only is this the world’s first learner’s Legal English dictionary, but it is also the only dictionary of law that is based entirely on corpora to define and illustrate contemporary International Legal English in use.

As I said, I don’t believe ‘based entirely on corpora’, but that is the way publishers always describe books. ‘Based on corpora’ would do for me. And the world’s first learner’s Legal English dictionary, as far as I know, was published by Peter Collin. It was even taken up by Pons and republished in Germany as Fachwörterbuch Recht, with German terminology interspersed, but not intended to be a bilingual dictionary. I described it here and here. The TransLegal dictionary looks a lot better than that. I always thought the Pons version of the Collin dictionary was very useful for students, but my students did not agree, and a large number of them seemed to think they were getting a bilingual dictionary (which the cover unfortunately supported by stating ‘Englisch-Deutsch Deutsch-Englisch’) – there was a little German index at the back – thus judging it by criteria its authors never intended.

2) I just wonder how useful it is to have a dictionary that is only online, not available as a book or even CD. But as long as there’s an internet connection in the classroom, OK. My students would carry small law dictionaries around with them and consult them when something came up. The dictionary has to be at hand at the time when you need it. But it would not fit into TransLegal’s business model, I imagine, to publish a book.

Shooting star 2

In Deutsche definieren Englisch neu, USAnwalt comments on the most common ‘German’ meaning of shooting star:

Warum bezeichnen heute so oft die englischsprachigen Nachrichten aus Deutschland Politiker als Shooting Star? So eine Welle gab es schon einmal. Meine Amis verstehen das nicht.

Bezeichnen deutsche Journalisten damit Leute am Ende ihrer Karriere, die verglühen? Das passt aber nicht zum Kontext der Berichterstattung in den Deutschen Welle- und sonstigen englischsprachigen Nachrichten über deutsche Politik. Dort geht es scheinbar um Leute, die einen meteoric Rise vorweisen.

In English, Franz Müntefering or, dare I say it, Horst Seehofer would be more of a shooting star than Philipp Rösler, for example.

I’ve mentioned this one before.

He also discusses the problem often encountered in German contracts of anglicisms that a native speaker wouldn’t understand, and that ‘English experts’ in big German law firms, that is, German lawyers with a US LL.M., may have studied a narrow area of law but missed the basics. And another point: that German lawyers very often use the passive when they draft contracts.

This is something I meet a lot. I think it is also sometimes done by English and US lawyers, but strongly recommended against (courses on legal drafting seem to have been around longer in common-law jurisdictions, with their long and complex contracts, than in Germany, where there are certainly books on drafting contracts on the market, but only in recent years – this isn’t to say that English contracts are always well written). For instance, a lawyer might write the equivalent of ‘The rent shall be paid by the third working day of a month’, thus avoiding a subject: who is to pay the rent? It would be better to write ‘The tenant shall pay the rent by …’ In this case, it’s obvious who pays the rent, and probably explicitly stated elsewhere. But in more complex clauses it may be unclear what the subject should have been.

I’ve also claimed before that it is more common in German contracts to encounter poor use of defined terms: a term is defined and given a label, in German in capital letters, and then either never comes up again, so the label is never used, or is replaced by a synonym that is not particularly marked. If this is so, which commenters have disputed, it could also be explained by the fact that common-law contracts tend to be more complex so lawyers are more likely to have been trained in drafting them.

LATER NOTE: I checked the Deutsche Welle site, since that was what Clemens referred to, and I found Philipp Roesler referred to as a ‘rising star’. Have they changed it? I did find in a site search that ‘shooting star’ has been used there for Gautier Capuçon, David Kross, Manuela Schwesig, and even ‘twin shooting-star artists Gert and Uwe Tobias’.

Garner’s Modern American Usage: style guides defunct?

When I first started reading Bryan Garner on legal English, little did I know he would one day write a book on American English usage. This is a book that has a recommendation on the cover by William Safire and came out in its third edition in August. Here it is at You can read his defence of his prescriptivism in the preface there.

I hope this doesn’t keep him away from legal usage. But perhaps, having written on that subject and revised Black’s Law Dictionary, he has had enough of it.

At all events, Bryan Garner has sent out a call for his readers to buy one or more copies of the new third edition at or

This is because the main U.S. bookstore chains are not stocking the book and they have told OUP that they consider usage guides a “defunct category”.

It might be even better for Americans to go to their bookstore and order it.

Or why not order the Chicago Style Guide, or, for Britain, New Hart’s Rules, or Judith Butcher on copyediting? Here’s a Wikipedia list.

I’m not sure what the situation of British bookshop chains is, but I suppose even if Germany is being Thalia-ized, the Duden is safe.

Here’s the rest of Garner’s email, which someone sent to me:

If you’re curious to see what effect you’re having, watch the rankings on or in coming days and weeks. We’ll be alerting the major chains to those numbers, and we want to get as close to the top 50 as we can. If you’re trying to order and see that the book is labeled “out of stock,” order anyway: the effort is also to ensure that the online booksellers keep adequate stocks.

In return for this favor – it’s a grassroots effort – I’ll be happy to inscribe copies that you send to LawProse for that purpose, if you (1) include a filled-out FedEx airbill for returning them to you, and (2) suggest an appropriate inscription.

Thank you for whatever help you can provide in this endeavor to show booksellers that the concern for good English is alive and well.

Bryan A. Garner

Bryan A. Garner
LawProse, Inc.
14180 Dallas Parkway
Suite 280
Dallas, TX 75254
(214) 691-8588

Germany Schmermany

In DDR Pulps, John Brownlee doesn’t give a shit about the difference between East and West Germany (see comments):

I was a tad vague, and used a bad example to start the series. Also, ultimately, I don’t give a shit. Still, this one may very well have been from East Germany, considering it was published in 1993. The Deutschemark was being used even in East Germany then.

Apart from anything else, one wonders if the artwork on ‘Rückkehr der Saurier’ was done in Germany at all.

(Via Boing Boing – more comments there)

Chris Durban/Jutta Witzel Videoclip

One thing pointed out by the BDÜ representatives at the Book Fair was this video from the Berlin BDÜ conference, where Jutta Witzel interviews Chris Durban. Chris Durban has certain opinions about how to get and keep good clients, which I am sure are excellent for her particular area of financial translation for big companies. As with the Buchmesse talk on how to find a special area, I think translators cover a very wide field and not all tactics work for all.

My negative comment for the day is: why is the video described in German on YouTube when the interview is in English?