Land and (federal) state

This is one of those thorny issues that stop me from writing up a guide to DE>EN legal translation. If you read to the end you will also realize that enough is enough.

Germany is divided into sixteen Länder, sometimes called Bundesländer. I think it is customary in US English to call them states or federal states. I have been heard to say that Germany is a federal state so its constituent parts can’t be, but I am feeling so confused now that I can’t remember if I believe that. In British English I think Land (plural Länder) is often used, sometimes in italics. The capital L marks it as foreign; the plural is a problem. But even here, I suspect that state is becoming the more common term.

The problem doesn’t end there, because these entities have different titles: Freistaat Bayern, Freistaat Sachsen, Freistaat Thüringen, and possibly Stadtstaat for Hamburg, Bremen and Berlin. I don’t really like to write Free State of Bavaria, but it’s often done.

There’s a wonderful illustration of the dreadful longwindedness and complexity of discussions on translation in the Talk section of the Wikipedia article on States of Germany. Do these sections get deleted? I assume not, but here’s a taster:

The article states right in the beginning “Germany is a federal republic made up of 16 states formally known in German as Bundesländer (“Federal States”; singular Bundesland), or more commonly, Länder (singular Land).”
As far as my information goes, that is actually totally incorrect. The term “Bundesländer” is used in common parlance, however legally speaking it does not even exist and is misleading and wrong actually. The sentence should be the other way around. I took a look into the Grundgesetz, Chapter II is titled “Der Bund und die Länder”, in the english version it says “The Federation and the Länder”. Chapter IV Der Bundesrat reads: “Durch den Bundesrat wirken die Länder bei der Gesetzgebung und Verwaltung des Bundes und in Angelegenheiten der Europäischen Union.” translated as “The Länder shall participate through the Bunderat in the legislation …etc.” Nowhere in the Grundgesetz does it ever talk of “Bundesländer”. The state-governments are also just called that, Landesregierung and not Bundeslandregierung. Of course the term Bundesländer is popularly used, however legally speaking it does not even exist and is factually wrong. Germany by its constitution is made up of the german states first, who got together to create a federation, the Bundesrepublik. Therefore anything that has to do with “Bund-” is only at the federal level, by its nature it cannot be at the state “Land” level. Therefore a word like Bundesland in itself is actually a contradiction.

It goes on.

The article itself refers inter alia to federated states. It prefers Länder (as I have to date) but gives as authority for this the use in the ‘official’ translation of the Basic Law (I tend to find none of the translations of the Basic Law totally satisfactory and have my doubts about ‘official’ translations) and in UK parliamentary proceedings, in this case qoting one debate in 1991.

Now, the EU English Style Guide recommends:

Land, Länder Translate as ‘federal state(s)’, adding ‘German’ if necessary for clarity, or leave the terms in German.

But here’s the list of suggestions that threw me, in the recommendations of the Auswärtiges Amt:

(Land) Baden-Württemberg
(Free State of) Bavaria
(Land) Berlin
(Land) Brandenburg
(Free Hanseatic City of) Bremen
(Free and Hanseatic City of) Hamburg
(Land) Hesse
(Land) Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania
(Land) Lower Saxony
(Land) North Rhine-Westphalia
(Land) Rhineland-Palatinate
(Land) Saarland
(Free State of) Saxony
(Land) Saxony-Anhalt
(Land) Schleswig-Holstein
(Free State of) Thuringia

This means that not only do they distinguish between Freistaat, Land etc., but they require an of after state and not after Land.

I discussed this with ITI colleagues and the agreement was that we say:
state of Saarland
Land of Saarland
putting of in both. But German institutions which follow the Auswärtiges Amt recommendations are going to distinguish grammatically.

I don’t like it, but it’s a little difficult to research since the term Land is not an English one. Wherever it’s used in English, non-native speakers are likely to be involved to a greater degree than with native English terms. But why, if you are writing English, would you write ‘city of …’ and ‘state of …’ but not ‘Land of …’?

8 thoughts on “Land and (federal) state

    • Are they out of date? The Saarland was dubious before 1957 when it joined the FRG.
      It also struck me that I prefer Hessen to Hesse – EU Style Guide is OK with Hessen, Hesse sounds to me like Hanover and Mayence and Aix-la-Chapelle.

      I know they did change the punctuation of North Rhine-Westphalia (used to be something like North-Rhine/Westphalia), so maybe I should email them.

      • Old-fashioned sounds feasible. There’s a leftist/nationalist invented tradition in peninsular Spanish which has grown rapidly since the 1960s to call a nationalist region a land/country (Valencia -> Pa

        • Domestic servant level? That would be Romanian or Serbian. See book ‘Wie sag ichs meiner Putzfrau?’
          The country issue seems to have dogged the UK football team.

    • To your American ears and my British ones, but not to all.

      I agree about the lack of background knowledge. Let’s not discuss the minister presidents today!

      I was thinking what you said about ‘upper house/lower house of parliament’ too.

  1. The only justification for leaving out ‘of’ after Land is that it clashes with the English meaning of a country, thus: in the Land of the Free(and Easy).

    And, non-facetiously, let us not forget the German ‘Confederate of Cantons’, namely the Canton *of* Bavaria, as uttered 15 years ago at a conference by a woman partner of a City of London ‘Silver Circle’ Solicitors’ firm!

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