Scholar begins clerkship in Germany's highest court

By John Masson
Michigan Law Communications

Clerking on Germany's highest court wasn't necessarily on Judith Schmidt's radar when she arrived at Michigan Law to begin her LLM studies in 2008.

But when she flew back home to Germany this month, her destination was Karlsruhe, the home of Germany's Federal Constitutional Court. She's accepted a unique one-year clerkship appointment with Germany's equivalent of the United States Supreme Court: a job dedicated to translating the most important of the court's decisions and press releases into English, for wider distribution through the European Union and beyond.

It's a challenging role, Schmidt said, and one she looks forward to pursuing.

"I really loved working on the test translation they gave me," Schmidt said. "It was challenging, but also very satisfying."

One of the challenges—and part of the reason the Court sought out a properly qualified lawyer in addition to a standard professional translator—is the complex and highly technical legal thinking embodied in each decision.

"You need to be able to understand what the decision is about, without the language," she said. "Strip the coding of language away, and then say what it really means. So my job is to put what the judges really meant into English."

Schmidt should be well-suited to tackle that task. In addition to her basic German legal training, completed with the Faculty of Law at the University of Potsdam, she also holds a Michigan Law LLM ('10). Additionally, she's worked as a research scholar at Michigan since 2009, and she continues to work on her doctorate through the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.

But there are other challenges associated with translating legal decisions from German into English, as well, she sai—quite apart from coping with the notorious vagaries of English grammar and spelling.

"German sentences tend to be much longer than English ones, and we Germans love the passive voice," she said. "So the opinions will sound different in English. My challenge will be to keep it as close as possible to the original, but still understandable in English."

Michigan, where she honed her English to an almost accent-free pitch, was everything she'd hoped it would be when she first applied here, she said.

One thing that struck me very strongly was that everybody is bright," Schmidt said. "It was nice to start on a higher level.”