Even lawyers do not like legalese

Even lawyers do not like legal language according to this article.

I found the reference through a colleague who subscribes to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (thanks, Marisa!) and quoted this, from 31.05.2023:

Warum so kompliziert?

Von Sibylle Anderl

Wer Texte von Anwälten liest, ist hinterher selten schlauer. Die Motivation dahinter haben nun US-Forscher entschlüsselt.

Wie naiv die Vorstellung ist, menschliche Sprache diene stets dem möglichst reibungsfreien Austausch von Informationen zwischen Sender und Empfänger, illustriert wohl kaum etwas besser als die Ausdrucksweise von Juristen. Das Missverständnis, dem Leser solle im juristischen Schriftverkehr Verständnis ermöglicht werden, ist meist nach wenigen Worten vom Tisch. Die Gründe dafür sind gut erforscht: Der Trick liegt in der Kombination von Schachtelsätzen mit unüblichen Fachtermini. …

The article referred to appeared in PNAS: Even lawyers do not like legalese (paywall but I paid the $10). Here’s the abstract:

Across modern civilization, societal norms and rules are established and communicated largely in the form of written laws. Despite their prevalence and importance, legal documents have long been widely acknowledged to be difficult to understand for those who are required to comply with them (i.e., everyone). Why? Across two preregistered experiments, we evaluated five hypotheses for why lawyers write in a complex manner. Experiment 1 revealed that lawyers, like laypeople, were less able to recall and comprehend legal content drafted in a complex “legalese” register than content of equivalent meaning drafted in a simplified register. Experiment 2 revealed that lawyers rated simplified contracts as equally enforceable as legalese contracts, and rated simplified contracts as preferable to legalese contracts on several dimensions–including overall quality, appropriateness of style, and likelihood of being signed by a client. These results suggest that lawyers who write in a convoluted manner do so as a matter of convenience and tradition as opposed to an outright preference and that simplifying legal documents would be both tractable and beneficial for lawyers and nonlawyers alike.

The text types referred to are contracts and statutes (judgments and correspondence are my favourites though).

I wondered what the German Schachtelsätze referred to specifically. It seems the villain is the centre-embedded clause (“leading to long-distance syntactic dependencies”), which I hadn’t heard of but does seem similar to the convoluted German sentences.

The authors cited five hypotheses as to why lawyers write in a more complex manner than they themselves would prefer:

1. Curse of knowledge hypothesis – curse of knowledge is assuming other people know as much as you do and so failing to explain enough.

2. Copy-and-paste hypothesis – when you are putting a contract together, you use archaic clauses by copying them rather than amending or adapting them. I suppose that cut and paste predates word processing.

From Wikipedia:
The term “cut and paste” comes from the traditional practice in manuscript-editings whereby people would cut paragraphs from a page with scissors and paste them onto another page. This practice remained standard into the 1980s. Stationery stores sold “editing scissors” with blades long enough to cut an 8½”-wide page. The advent of photocopiers made the practice easier and more flexible.

I hadn’t heard of editing scissors, an exciting term.

3. In-Group signalling hypothesis: signalling to other lawyers that you’re part of the tribe, sounding more “lawyerly”.

4. It’s just business hypothesis: writing in a convoluted way to preserve your monopoly on legal services and justify your fees.

5. Complexity of information hypothesis: thinking that law is so complex that only complex language can do justice to it.

Most of these hypotheses are debunked in the article, but the copy-and-paste idea seems to stand up.It’s a problem for translators since you are translating for someone who doesn’t really understand what they wrote.

Here is an example of contract language in tradition legalese (left) and simpler language (right), highlighting the differences:

No participant saw those paired versions – the traditional and simpler versions did not match. There are details of how the study was recruited for and conducted. See the article for these. For example, in one experiment, 60% of participants identified as male, 38% as non-White. Lawyers were further categorized, for example 50% were coded as “fancy” lawyers, meaning that they either graduated from a top-25 law school according to US News and World report or worked at a top-200 law firm according to American Lawyer magazine.

How to translate numbers

Victor Dewsbery has added a post in his blog Language Mystery going into great (and alas necessary) detail on millions, milliards, billions, trillions etc.

Translating numbers: 1. How much is a billion?

This history of the number systems has also created “false friends” for translators. A German “Billion” is not the same as an English “billion”. The words “Trillion” and “Quadrillion” are also misleading. And a German “Milliarde” is not a “milliard”.

This much I remember, and I am very grateful to Victor for setting it out so well. Take a look around for other topics while you’re there.

Book recommendation: Triebel/Vogenauer, Englisch als Vertragssprache

Here is a strong recommendation for a book I have not yet read, only skimmed, myself. Unfortunately I have too many books on the go (rereading Die Emigranten and the Patrick Melrose novels, reading the Secret Barrister, Cotton on Photography as Contemporary Art and two books on literary theory, which we were only just dipping our toes into in the 60s and 70s, to say nothing of a translation of Willehalm and The Romance of the Three Kingdoms  – I can’t remember ever wanting to read so much and having so little time to do it).

Volker Triebel, Stefan Vogenaur, Englisch als Vertragssprache, Beck Verlag 2108

Thanks to Inge Noeninger for pointing it out on Twitter (note the bust of Goethe on her bookshelves – I only have Marx). I had waiting ages, from 1995 to 2012, for the new edition of Englisches Handels- und Wirtschaftsrecht, which was not quite appropriate to my direction of translation, and missed this one.

Please read the table of contents (PDF) via Beck Verlag. Scroll down to see it. The foreword is there too.

The book is intended for lawyers, not legal translators (whereas most of the more pedestrian Legal English books are always advertised to be suitable for translators, interpreters, lawyers and anyone else with a few euros to spare).

The first swection deals among other things with how lawyers actually learn English and how much they do both on LL.M. courses and in big international law firms. This is something I can’t remember reading anywhere else. There is also a bit on the niche role of German as a legal language. There is then a section on what can go wrong, both linguistically and semantically, and a section on problems of general English, followed by one on the special problems of the English language in contracts. Section 5 deals with problems in translating English contract terms into German, Section 6 with problems where the language and the legal system diverge, and section 7 advice on safer drafting. At the end is a bibliography in eight sections. There are indexes in both German and English.

Looking at the bibliographies, I have noted Christopher Hutton, Word Meaning and Legal Interpretation: An Introductory Guide, 2014, but perhaps I should not buy it until I have read this one, which warrants close examination and a large part of which is of direct interest to me. I know most of the books on legal English for non-English-speaking lawyers. I am quite ignorant of how much has been published on Auseinanderfallen von Vertragssprache und anwendbarem Recht – whenever I translate a contract into English, it is governed by German law, so my translation is just for information, and if anyone asked me to help draft a contract in English I would refuse as I’m not a practising lawyer – still, it is interesting, and I recognize some names, not just Triebel himself (several articles) but Suzanne Ballansat-Aebi, who has written well about legal translation, and Gerhard Dannemann.

I’m not sure I’m brainy enough to read Heikki Mattila on Comparative Legal Linguistics, translated from the Finnish, though the history of legal abbreviations is a big temptation, and another element of great interest to me is legal Latin, which varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction so is part of what needs translating too. It’s a bit expensive even in Kindle, so I may be safe for the time being.

Draußen nur Kaninchen – miscellaneous

1.A thread on Twitter had English speakers recount their mistakes speaking German. Two of them had understood Kännchen Kaffee as Kaninchen Kaffee. Another remembered being in a restaurant and saying Die Reinigung bitte. There was also a request for Ein Glas Leistungswasser – no one mentioned that you would be looked at oddly in Germany even if you asked for Leitungswasser. There was a request for a Crevettenhalter. And someone used to nod to indicate she understood the other speaker even if she could not speak so well; later she replaced the nod by saying Ich verstecke.

2. The German American Law Journal (American edition) reports that a German court recently held that it is OK for tax purposes in Germany for invoices to be in electronic form. I still have two clients who want paper invoices rather than PDFs. Let’s see if this changes now. Invoicing Germany – AirMail or EMail

A customer had claimed a right of retention based on the alleged insufficiency of an emailed scan of an invoice, arguing that only the original could render the invoice due and payable. The Aachen District Court disagreed and on January 9, 2018 issued its de­cision under docket number 41 O 44/17, available in German from the North-Rhine-West­fa­lia justice portal. The court lists the applicable tax regulations as well as court de­ci­si­ons including a 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court for Tax Matters.


Ein normenverdeutlichendes Gespräch

A colleague was wondering about the translation into English of the term ein normenverdeutlichendes Gespräch (literally, a conversation clarifying the law). He found it in this lovely Hamburg police report of two days ago:

Hamburg (ots) – Zeit: 24.03.2016, 23:36 Uhr Ort: Hamburg-Meiendorf, Hellmesberger Weg

In der Zentralen Erstaufnahmeeinrichtung in Hamburg-Meiendorf kam es zu einem Streit unter Bewohnern. Der Hintergrund hierzu ist unklar. Es versammelten sich ca. 20 Bewohner der Unterkunft und stachelten sich gegenseitig an, so dass aufgrund der aggressiven Stimmung das Wachpersonal die Polizei verständigte. 10 Funkstreifenwagen fuhren zum Einsatzort. Als ein Rädelsführer konnte ein 28-jähriger Mann (Nationalität ungeklärt) vor Ort von den Beamten ermittelt werden. Die Beamten konnten den Streit schlichten und führten mit dem 28-Jährigen ein normenverdeutlichendes Gespräch durch.

First of all we need to find out what it means in English. We have here a situation involving about twenty migrants (also known as refugees) who were causing a rumpus and their ringleader (!) – nationality unknown, but presumably not German – was obviously told by the police, who arrived with ten radio patrol cars, to behave himself, in that it was explained to him that what he was doing could be prosecuted as a criminal offence but they were letting him off for the time being.

It looks as if a more technical term, Normenverdeutlichung, has been borrowed because it sounds so wonderfully official.

A similar usage is quoted by Birgit Grossmann in her Doku-Hotline blog:

Polizeisprecher Ronald Walther: „Nach einem normenverdeutlichenden Gespräch haben wir die beiden ihren Eltern übergeben.“

She doesn’t spend much time on it, though:

Seit ca. 1998 scheint es diese Wortschöpfung zu geben, in den Duden hat sie es allerdings noch nicht geschafft. Kann nur noch wenige Jahrzehnte dauern – oder wir warten auf das nächste Modewort zur Jugendproblematik.

My feeling was that this is a specifically German term from criminology or sociology and we need to find a German definition. However, it seems that norm clarification is an English term connected with restorative justice and Normenverdeutlichung is a translation of that. The German term, however, seems to crop up in connection with action before any charge or arrest, avoiding punishment (as in the example from Hamburg), not with action after an offence. At the moment that’s as far as I’ve got with it.

Here is one of the several English ghits for norm clarification. It appears to have a different meaning from the German:

Exercises in norm clarification and elaboration can benefit from the standard-setting fundamentals set out in General Assembly resolution 41/120: the results should, inter alia, ‘(a) be consistent with the existing body of international human rights law’; ‘(b) be of fundamental character and derive from the inherent dignity and worth of the human person’; ‘(c) be sufficiently precise to give rise to identifiable and practicable rights and obligations’.

One ghit is a PDF file of Strategien der Gewaltprävention im Jugendkriminalrecht by Horst Viehmann, which interestingly has a translation into English as Strategies of Violence Prevention within the German Framework of Juvenile Criminal Law

Here’s an extract:

Das Jugendkriminalrecht ist ein präventiv ausgerichtetes Recht. Nicht die Bestrafung der Täterinnen und Täter ist Intention und Aufgabe, sondern die zukünftige straffreie Bewährung der Verurteilten. Sie sollen nicht wieder straffällig werden, nachdem sie einmal mit dem Gesetz in Konflikt geraten sind. Sinn und Ziel ist die sogenannte Spezialprävention. Das künftige Verhalten der jungen Menschen soll konstruktiv beeinflusst werden. Sie sollen Einsicht in die Schädlichkeit oder Verwerflichkeit des vorangegangenen Handelns gewinnen und daraus Resistenz vor Rückfälligkeit erlangen. Und sie sollen in die Lage versetzt werden, das Leben künftig ohne Straftaten zu gestalten. Für den großen Anteil der ubiquitären (weit verbreiteten) und der episodenhaften (vorübergehenden) Kriminalität junger Menschen genügt das Signal: Das Handeln wird nicht geduldet, es ist bei Strafe verboten (in der Fachsprache: Normverdeutlichung). Einsicht, Befähigung zur Gestaltung eines straffreien Lebens und Normverdeutlichung sind – vereinfacht gesagt – die Ziele aller jugendstrafrechtlichen Reaktionen und Interventionen. Zwar gibt es auch ein repressives Element mit Sicherungsfunktion, aber es ist eine Ausnahmeregelung, und es ist im Ergebnis ebenfalls auf die Legalbewährung hin orientiert: Die Jugendstrafe wegen schwerer Schuld – aber auch hier ist die erzieherische Perspektive zu berücksichtigen.

and here the translation:

Juvenile criminal law is preventively conceived law; its design purpose and its responsibility in practice are not to ensure that offenders are punished, but rather that those convicted should subsequently show themselves capable of living within the law. The aim is that following their first clash with the law they should not go on to commit further offences. The rationale and purpose amount to what is called “special prevention”: the future behaviour of the young persons concerned is supposed to be influenced for the better. They are supposed to gain an understanding of the harmful or reprehensible nature of their earlier conduct, thereby acquiring a degree of resistance to recidivism. And they are supposed to be put in a position enabling them to live from then on without re-offending. For most of the ubiquitous or episodic criminality on the part of young people, the clear warning suffices: this particular behaviour will not be tolerated, it is forbidden and will be punished (the technical term here is “norm clarification”). Insight, enablement to live an offence-free life, and norm clarification are – to put it in simple terms – the objectives of all reactions and interventions under juvenile penal law. There is admittedly also a repressive element, as a safeguard; but that is a provision for exceptional circumstances, and in terms of results is likewise aimed at subsequent good con-duct: detention in a young offenders institution follows on a serious offence – but here too due attention must be paid to the educational aspect.

The translation is by an outfit called Textworks Translations. It is a close reading of the German and a bit heavy, and actually rather similar to what I would do myself in a legal translation done for information purposes where I myself am never fully familiar with the research in the area. Textworks Translations are academics who translate academic texts for academics, they say (Von Wissenschaftlern für Wissenschaftler). Anja Löbert and Dr. Timothy Wise are named (author of the soon-to-appear volume Wise, T 2016, Yodeling and Meaning in American Music, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi, USA.)

My comments on the translation: Spezialprävention can be translated not only as special prevention but also as specific deterrence – perhaps worth considering. I would probably avoid supposed to for sollen: it always reads to me as if it meant ‘they ought to be but they aren’t’. And the educational aspect at the end reminded me that Geoffrey Perrin recommended educative in the context of juvenile criminal law, because it has nothing to do with formal, organized education (Bildung).

(But at a later point the translation does use educative: ‘The Act’s core principle is its educative intent. This educative principle is not defined expressis verbis in the text, but is frequently and variously alluded to, as well as being implicit in the actual provisions.’)

And that reminded me that before I moved this blog to WordPress I had a number of still really useful articles by Geoffrey Perrin on my site which he kindly let me use. And I must put them on this site – look out for a post.

With thanks to the colleague, who knows who he is.

KCL German play

King’s College German Play, Der Besuch der alten Dame (The Visit), had its first night on 7 March and there is another performance on 11 March. I saw it with another former King’s student. Everything has changed since the late sixties. The students are a mix of nationalities and subjects – European Studies, European Politics, War Studies, Comparative literature. It was an excellent production with great pace. It really was over in 2 hours so they must have cut quite a bit; the play is rather wordy. Some of the students speak very fluent German.

There are English surtitles – actually a block of text from a translated version of the play. Obviously it had to be cut to the right length, but was it a published version or done by the students themselves? I saw this with Nathan der Weise in Berlin, where they had a rather aged English translation.

The play was on in a place called Tutu’s on the 4th floor of the Macadam Building in Surrey Street. It was dreadfully cold there! The performance used projected images and sound effects – for instance the trains passing through at the beginning – and few props (I missed the coffin, but it wouldn’t have worked here). Desmond Tutu is an alumnus and a rather weird sculpture of his head is above the door:


We went in memory of the plays we remembered from our own time as students, shockingly 50 years ago. I remember Biedermann und die Brandstifter in 1966 and Minna von Barnhelm in 1967. The current offering is an old chestnut too. But it’s still being performed in the real world and you can see video clips from Bochum, Zurich, and Berlin online (probably there are more out there too).

The KCL version is on a bare stage – here are some photos I stole from the KCL German Society Twitter feed:



They studied German (1) Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown

While UK university German departments are closing down and German is less and less popular as a school subject, let’s look at some people who studied German, or perhaps just learnt it, in the past.


Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown studied modern languages with an emphasis on German at Edinburgh University. It was Ernst Udet who suggested to Brown that he should learn German.

In 1936 Brown’s father took him to the Olympics in Berlin, where they met Hermann Göring and Ernst Udet, both First World War fighter aces. Udet took young Brown flying in a two-seat Bucker Jungmann from Halle airfield and, after throwing the aircraft around the skies, declared that Brown had the temperament of a fighter pilot and must learn to fly.

He interrogated Göring at the Nuremberg Trials too. He said when Göring held out a hand to him to shake on parting, he was unable to take it, but instead it occurred to him to say ‘Hals- und Beinbruch’, which he described as the traditional pilots’ greeting, although that seems a narrow view.

There’s a bit about his studies in a video on an Edinburgh University site. He studied German with subsidiary French from 1937 (finishing after the war in 1947), and the Foreign Office said he should spend six months in Germany and six in France after his second year, so he went as an English assistant to Salem School in summer 1939. Of his 18 pupils, 17 died in the war and the survivor had only one leg.

The first public corpus of alcoholized German speech

The first public corpus of alcoholized German speech appears to be a product of the Institut für Phonetik und Sprachverarbeitung/ Institute of Phonetics and Speech Processing at Munich University.

There’s more information here: Speech of Intoxicated Speakers.

Professor Jonathan Harrington has published widely, including the following:

Harrington, J. (2006). An acoustic analysis of ‘happy-tensing’ in the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts,
Journal of Phonetics. 34 439–457.
Harrington, J., Palethorpe, S., and Watson, C. (2000). Does the Queen speak the Queen’s English?
Nature, 408, 927-928.

Thanks as usual to the organ grinder.