Translating a legal contract into any language is a difficult task for a lawyer or translator. Legal contracts, and legal documents in general, are challenging because they are not only for informational purposes to the reader, they also perform an action and enforce a set of rules the signatories agree to. In other words, legal contracts typically are performative, informational, and prescriptive. There are no other documents that we know of that have all three of these qualities (send us a note if you know any others!). Because of this unique complexity, translating a legal contract into a different language must be executed in specific way relative to generalist translations.
Expanding into German-speaking countries comes with great upside for businesses. Germany, being the biggest economy in Europe, is home to many Fortune 500 companies and other large businesses. That said, translating legal contracts into German for use in German-speaking countries has its own challenges since Germany, Austria, and Switzerland all use the Civil Law legal system, which is different than the United State’s Common Law system. This makes it even more essential to correctly translate the source contract in a way that is valid in the target country. These countries also have their own Governments, Laws, Legal Writing Style, and preferred key legal terms to keep in mind.
Below is are the major steps on how to translate a legal contract into German.
Pre-Work: Understand Target German Market(s)
Before starting any translation, it is important for you to understand where the resulting German legal contract is going to be used. Will it be used in Germany? Austria? Switzerland? All three? It is important to understand this before starting work so you can consider the Legal System used by the target market(s), the Legal Writing Style, Country Specific Laws that may apply to this contract, and key German terms with their preferred translation. It is also wise to fully understand the original contract and potentially read some of the Civil Codes associated with it.
Adapt English Contract
Once you have done your pre-work and understand where the German legal contract will be used, start by adapting the English version of the Contract to reflect the changes necessary to work within the target market. For example, if a clause is specific to the Common Law legal system, which is not applicable in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland, then it may need to be removed. It is likely best to consult a contracts lawyer that works in the target market for this step.
Pro tip: keep track of the changes that were made in English per target market so you can create a playbook for future legal contracts for your organization.
Translate English Contract
After the English version has been adapted, hire a native German-speaking lawyer, translator or translation service to execute the translation of the legal contract. Given the complexity of a legal contract, we think the best strategy is to hire a native German-speaking contract lawyer that works in the target country. This could be a German-speaking contract lawyer in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, etc, and does not necessarily have to have a lot of years of experience. Hiring a German-speaking lawyer in the target market will guarantee you are working with a lawyer that is familiar with the local legal system, laws, legal writing style, and key German terms. Further, if the contract is an industry specific contract, like an End User License Agreement for a software company, you should work with a native German-speaking lawyer with relevant experience in that industry.
There may be instances where the translator needs to add more German text in order to guarantee the legal contract is performing its purpose. This is a unique technique and would only be applicable when there is not an exact translation of a term or phrase in the target language.
Pro tip: Consider adding a prevailing language clause to the translation in the target language. This will state that the English version of the contract will take precedence if there is a dispute between the English and translated versions.
Proofread German Contract
One of our core values is creating quality control systems to produce the highest quality in the industry. So, we would recommend taking an extra quality control step and hiring an independent German-speaking lawyer to proofread the newly translated German contract. This will mitigate against the initial translating lawyer having a specific writing style and choice of words. Any edits can be implemented.
Sample Contract in Target Markets
Finally, take the finalized German contract and sample it with potential signatories in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. You want to confirm the German version is high-quality and is not confusing for the potential target signatory. Like it or not, your legal documents are part of your brand and a bad translation can signal that you are not serious about doing business in that country. Sampling the German contract will give you the reassurance it is ready to be used in-market.