Lost in Translation: Deutsche Bank vs. Kirch

In its current edition, The Economist covered the topic of cross-border legal services and the need for legal translations. But as a German case recently illustrated, in a globalised world, you can get lost in translation even in litigation that, at least on paper, is purely domestic. In the long drawn litigation saga between Deutsche Bank and the heirs of media tycoon Leo Kirch which is pending in the Munich courts, the judges have to resort to expert evidence from linguists in order to sort out what the minutes of board meetings of Deutsche Bank really meant. – According to today’s Frankfurter Allgemeine, things do not look good for Deutsche Bank.

Deutsche Bank is defending itself against claims brough by media tycoon Leo Kirch. Here’s the summary of the saga so far: Leo Kirch, the failed media tycoon, spent his final years fighting Deutsche Bank and its former chief executive, Rolf Breuer, in court. Kirch asserted that a public statement by Breuer about the Kirch group’s finances that led to its collapse back in 2002. The current episode covered, inter alia, by Süddeutsche Zeitung is interesting not so much for its legal content, as intriguing as it is. It illustrates the risks and real-life difficulties of dealing with different languages in business and in court.

This is what’s the heart of this particular episode: Did senior officers of Deutsche Bank properly represent, when in the witness box, what went on in Deutsche’s board meetings at the time? Both Deutsche Bank’s former CEOs, Josef Ackermann and Rolf Breuer, had already testified on the issue –  in German. The minutes of the meetings, however, were in English. 

In a board meeting of Deutsche Bank, shortly before Breuer‘s statements were made in an Interview, Kirch was on the agenda. According to Süddeutsche’s report, the minutes recorded that the bank “has been asked whether we could act as a mediator”. Further, it noted: “The Board felt that as a first step Mr Kirch should be approached with the question whether he would award us an advisory mandate …”.

Kirch’s lawyers argued that these minutes, properly translated, contradicted the witness statements made by Ackermann and Breuer. Apparently, both the expert witnesses supported that conclusion. According to Sueddeutsche, the two linguists testified that it was clear from the minutes that the bank had been contacted about a mediation mandate, and that the board’s general opinion had been to ask Kirch first whether he himself would “grant an advisory mandate” before one could become active in this matter for other interested parties.

On the topic of law, language and technology, The Economist concludes: “The twin forces of globalisation and technology may put many mediocre lawyers out of business. But those who master languages and computers may find themselves in demand.”





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