First German court hearing in English/Erste Verhandlung auf Englisch (LG Bonn)

As reported in an earlier entry, hearings in English are now possible at three international commercial chambers in Aachen, Cologne and Bonn. Both parties have to agree to waive the use of an interpreter. The first such hearing took place on May 10 at the Bonn Regional Court (Landgericht). There is a brief report in German in the Kölnische Rundschau, but it does not go into detail, and indeed, the reporter was apparently unable to assess the effectiveness of the language:

Premiere in Bonn: “Good afternoon”, begrüßte Manfred Kaufmann, Vorsitzender der neu eingerichteten 19. Zivilkammer des Bonner Landgerichts, die Parteien: Dann erläuterte der Handelsrichter in englischer Sprache die juristische Problematik der vorliegenden Klage: Eine Aktiengesellschaft belgischen Rechts wirft darin einem Bonner Unternehmen Vertragsbruch vor. Worum es im Detail ging, blieb dem Prozessbeobachter – im Handelsenglisch nicht geübt – im Verborgenen.

However, a colleague, Martina Niessen, Diplom-Dolmetscherin, has kindly reported to translators’ mailing lists on the hearing, which she attended.

To summarize: the courtroom was rather small, seating scarcely more than twenty, but there were SAT1 TV cameras there and a reporter and photographer. The three judges’ wives were reportedly all native speakers of English. Both parties had German lawyers, and the plaintiff also had a Belgian lawyer.

None of the parties was a native speaker of English. The case related to a Belgian company which supplied the Cuban government with electronic components, and a German company which supplied such components to the Belgian company. The German company has been taken over by a U.S. corporation, and so problems have been created by the U.S. embargo against Cuba. The court wanted the parties to reach a compromise, in part because a large amount of Belgian documents in French and Cuban documents in Spanish would have needed to be translated (so much for simplifying matters by using English as the court language!).

There were some language problems. For example, it was necessary to spell names, and the judges were not used to spelling in English. The words plaintiff and defendant were confused several times. Our colleague had the impression that they would have liked to express themselves in German.

The two German lawyers called for a Grundurteil. This is a decision as to whether the plaintiff’s claim has merit, literally a ‘basic judgment’, a kind of interim judgment. I haven’t got my library with me, but I gather Dietl-Lorenz does not contain a term (German judges often consult this dictionary and if it makes a suggestion they are usually happy with it). Nobody knew what the English for Grundurteil was, so they used the term Grundurteil in German – probably the best thing they could do. I would have consulted my English translation of the Zivilprozessordnung for this blog entry, and indeed this is a reference the courts might consider having at hand, but none of these dictionaries or translations are authorities in themselves: the user needs to have the background knowledge to decide which, if any, suggested terminology works.

The record of the proceedings was dictated in German by the presiding judge. The Grundurteil is to be pronounced on 31 May. The hearing was 90 minutes long. One of the associate judges (Beisitzer) spoke excellent English, apparently.

The judges had a tendency to start complex sentences which they could not finish.

Other language problems: the Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof, BGH) was referred to as ‘he’.
Kritik was translated as critic, not criticism.
Gewinn was translated as gain, not profit.
Power of attorney had to be explained to the Belgian.

It does seem odd that – obviously – German law is always involved. It is difficult enough to talk about legal issues in a foreign language, but it is even harder to be constantly translating German law into a foreign language. And this is precisely what is not practised if you do an LL.M. in the USA or UK. It’s something you need to work on.

Pronouncing the English alphabet: I used to get students to write the letters in groups according to the vowel sound, like this (this presumes the British pronunciation of Z as zed – if it is pronounced zee, it goes in the second line instead:


Many thanks to Martina for this report. I’d love to attend one of these hearings!

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