Jörn Schüler is an online German translator specialising in legal translation. He also runs his own translation agency, Das Übersetzernetzwerk, with 17 offices in Germany, offering translation in over 50 languages. He himself focuses on certified translations (beglaubigte Übersetzungen) legal documents, contract translations, agreements, birth/marriage certificates, university diplomas, school reports etc.
Hello Jörn, many thanks for talking to me today. Well I suppose my first question is, how did you start out, and how does a young translator become established so quickly to run a network of translation agencies spanning all of Germany?
Hello Joanna, first of all thanks for inviting me to the interview.
Like many things in life, my start as an “agency” was not planned. I stumbled into it. The plan was to do my PhD at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz/Germersheim after my graduation with an M.A. in specialised translation. And as I wanted to contribute my part to our household income, I thought I could do some translation work besides my PhD thesis.
So, I programmed a website to become visible and find customers. This worked out quite well and soon I had the first jobs.
What made you specialise in legal translation? Do you have a legal background?
No, I have no legal background in terms of being an attorney at law or so.
The decision to specialise in legal translation was the result of the reflection on the question I asked myself: what could be interesting enough to deal with for the rest of my life.
At university, we had to specialise in two of three areas: legal translator, business translator and technical translator. I opted for legal and business - just because I am lacking the sector of brain which can process technical issues. And … I really enjoy ‘legal lingo’.
How do you become a certified translator in Germany? Is the process similar elsewhere?
Germany consists of 16 Bundesländer (Federal States) and, as is the case in many other fields such as education etc., the process of becoming a certified online German translator depends very much on the Bundesland you live in. The one thing they all have in common is paperwork.
My Bundesland, which is Baden-Wuerttemberg, requires - among other things - proof of legal language skills in the languages for which you want to be certified - for me, this is German, English and French. The proof can be, for example, the degree certificate from a university with information regarding specialisations.
Once the competent authority has checked all the application papers and finds that you have the skills to become a certified translator, the President of the Landgericht (Regional Court) invites you to Court and you take the oath. Quite a ceremony
But, as I mentioned before, the process differs from state to state. Information can be obtained from the respective Regional Courts.
What characteristics do you need to be a great German legal translator? Do legal translators tend to be people who have experience in a legal field and then train to become a translator, or vice versa?
Great is not a word I would use. I rather consider myself to be thorough and reliable. These are essential characteristics for a translator.
I actually have colleagues with both backgrounds: translators with specialisation in legal translations (like myself) and even translators who completed a second course of study in law; and those who first finished legal studies successfully and did their M. A. in translation afterwards.
To be a successful legal translator you must have an understanding of legal matters and, of course, the different legal systems and languages. For example, the legal language in the USA is quite different from that in Great Britain.
We were prepared quite well at university as we had to attend the same lectures as the law students in order to acquire an in-depth look into the intricacies of law. Combined with the translation lectures and seminars, this was quite a profound basis.
I understood quite quickly that watching Ally McBeal in English would not be enough (just kidding).
Are there lots of well qualified German translators out there specialising in legal translation, or is this an area crying out for more professionalism?
Germany is suffering from a shortage of experts - this also applies for the translation industry.
Luckily, we are a good team operating well together, but we witness an increasing amount of work yet without the simultaneously increasing amount of translation experts.... In a nutshell: we could use more professionals to tackle all the work!
Does translation software play a big role in your working life? I presume it could be a big help for repetitive legal documentation?
We do use TM (Translation Memory) systems where it is beneficial.
But, as we have many, many official documents to translate, of which the lion part arrives as hardcopy or pdf files, the use of translation software is limited. You cannot translate degree certificates, police certificates of good conduct, school reports, driving licences, birth certificates, marriage certificates, notarised documents or court decrees (just to name a few) with translation software.
We have to translate the “traditional way” - open a blank Word file and start typing I myself use ‘Across’ and the tool which helps me most is the glossary I have built up over the years. This really saves time!
I know that TM systems are a great help for projects such as catalogue translations which contain many repetitions or if you often have similar documents from the same customer. But, to be honest: this does not happen too often in my area of legal / official documents.
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Considering that German law is based on Roman law, and Anglo-Saxon law is case law, is it particularly difficult finding terminological equivalents for legal translations in the German-English combination? Or has everything been superseded by EU law these days?
In cases where there are terms which simply do not exist in the other language (e.g. because systems are different) you have to use the translational means of “explicitation”.
That means that the translator adds explicit information to his translation which is implicit in the source text (based on e.g. the cultural background of the reader of the source text).
Institutions, names, laws, authorities, for example in Australia, are mostly unknown to German readers - thus, we add the relevant information so that the reader of the target text understands it the same way as does the reader of the source text.
It is true that the EU is a sheer never-ending source of terms and their translations. Look at the online dictionary of the European Union (comprising of all EU languages) which we use frequently!
This is a question I always ask specialists: is there one particular legal dictionary you’d recommend or believe every legal translator should have? As specialist dictionaries can be very expensive, it’s good to know what professionals use.
The Dietl/Lorenz as well as the Romain/Byrd/Thielecke dictionaries are recommendable, although I tend to work with both monolingual and bilingual dictionaries.
Monolingual dictionaries are perfect to understand a context and in a second step to find an equivalent in the target language or to use 'explicitation' accordingly.
As far as I am concerned, the best way to find adequate translations for tricky terminology is a combination of online research, dictionary check and the consultation of one of my colleagues who is a specialised translator for US legal or UK legal texts. This is why it can happen that one single word can sometimes occupy you for 1-2 hours…
But, once I have found the perfect match, I enter it into my TM glossary and thus avoid ever having to go through the same process again if the term occurs once more a year later in some other text.
(Interview with Jörn Schüler, online German translator and owner of Das Übersetzernetwerk, continues here...)