Translating Legal Quirkiness – The Austrian Versteinerungstheorie

I recently watched Mark Weiner’s (Worlds of Law) video on the Austrian Versteinerungstheorie (Versteinerung meaning petrification). According to the Versteinerungstheorie, words in constitutional provisions must be given the meaning they had at the time the provision was made – they are set in stone, if you will. While watching the video, I immediately thought of the two potential issues the Versteinerungstheorie would pose to legal translation. 

First, the translation of the term itself. In fact, a literal translation of Versteinerungstheorie would not make much sense. And, while one could off-handedly translate Versteinerungstheorie with originalism, it might lead to misunderstanding because other than originalism it is an established rule rather than a method of interpretation. 

Second, the implication of theory on translating provisions of the Austrian constitution. As the Versteinerungstheorie stipulates, you have to dig in the past in order to grasp the meaning of a tem used. It is therefore not sufficient to be fluent in contemporary Austrian (German), because language has obviously evolved since the Austrian constitution came into force.

So the example of the Austrian Versteinerungstheorie just further illustrates how complex translation of foreign legal texts can be: In addition to being fluent in the languages presented, a legal translator has to know the legal background and culture as well as the linguistic evolution.

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