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Multilingualism in the Swiss Judicial Culture: Problems and Opportunities Die Mehrsprachigkeit der schweizerischen Rechtskultur: Probleme und Chancen

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Abstract:

The commitment to multilingualism and multiculturalism is a characteristic of the Swiss identity and therefore a fundamental condition for the Swiss judiciary. However, multilingualism might prove to be undesirable in jurisprudence which has to be as accurate and unambiguous as possible to meet expectations.

On the basis of Swiss private law and its trilingual versions – the German, the French and the Italian version of the Zivilgesetzbuch (ZGB, Swiss codification of private law), this essay provides an outline of this specific area of conflict which can occur within the interpretation of law. During the formation process of the ZGB the three versions drifted apart from each other due to errors in translation and simple negligence and had to be aligned by a commission in order to again achieve consistency across the three versions. However, the existence of problems with multilingualism can not lead to the conclusion that in order to avoid mistakes one version should overrule the others by disregarding the commitment to the traditional multilingualism principle. Moreover, presuming the supremacy of one of the versions in order to achieve equivalent approaches and to reduce mistakes would not be in accordance with the Swiss constitution where this principle is set forth in Arts. 2, 4, 18, 70 Bundesverfassung (BV), Swiss constitution) Comparing the general rule of Art. 1 ZGB in each of the three versions, it even turns out that the area of conflict between the languages and their specific cultural context can be understood as offering a new and even more accurate perspective to interpret the law.

The author comes to the conclusion that the methods of interpretation can be broken down into a two-tier or even a dialectic process between a teleological and literal approach. The multilingualism in Swiss law should not be seen as a burden causing errors in translation and leading to misjudgements. Multilingualism can be seen as an advantage because it enriches the interpretation with a broader perspective and additionally conquers the limitation of the wording itself.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1628/003372508786013205

Publication date: October 1, 2008

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