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Recently at a registry office: Have you ever been in a civil partnership with another woman?

“Not words but contents are translated” – so I was told a few years ago. This remark is correct at its core, however incomplete. During the translation or interpreting process, the content of what is said is not just explained in another language. Instead, certain cultural practices which we take for granted (and themselves pose linguistic problems) are also conveyed. In the legal field it is particularly easy for misunderstandings to occur, since every country has its own juridical tradition. Names of authorities and officials, legal institutions, deeds or particular regulations in family law can vary greatly.

Legal tradition reflects social developments in a country and, ideally, those developments should be taken into consideration while translating or interpreting. Two recent examples from my professional work: a Polish-speaking customer intended to marry a man from Morocco. During an initial appointment at the registry office I had to explain the registrar’s remark that her fiancé was allowed by law of his home nation to have multiple marriages. Neither German nor Polish law recognises polygamy, so something that was obvious for a Moroccan first required explanation to a Pole.

There are further legal institutions that can cause difficulties in communication such as the Civil Partnership (German: “Eingetragene Partnerschaft) that was introduced in Germany in 2001. In a country which does not recognise civil partnership or same-sex marriage, such a German act of law will by principle be ignored. The fact that two women or two men can have their relationship recognised by the state is for some people something totally alien. Despite an on-going debate on the status of same-sex relationships in Poland, another customer of mine seemed to be stunned when asked if she had been previously living in a civil partnership. In that case, I had to explain to her in a parenthetic sentence that same-sex relationships are widely accepted in German society.