My GPS tries to kill me and the unexpected difficulties of international weddings

Yesterday, I had an interpreter gig that was – for me at least – rather unusual. I don’t do that much interpreting anyway – I’m primarily a translator. In case you don’t know the difference, translation is written, interpretation is spoken language. And when I have an interpreter job, it’s mostly business negotiations, factory tours and the like.

Yesterday’s job, however, was interpreting at a preparation meeting for a civil wedding. It will be an intercultural wedding, the groom is German and the bride is from the Philippines. And since a civil wedding is also a legal act, German law requires the presence of an interpreter at weddings involving foreign citizens. Mostly, those jobs are done by legal translators who are court approved. However, court approved interpreters are only required for the ceremony itself, not for the preparatory meeting. And since I know the groom from one of the companies for which I regularly do technical translations, I ended up with the job.

One of the things I like about interpreter gigs is that they get me away from my desk. Quite often, I get to see new and interesting things (e.g. at the factory tours or the time we toured a coal freighter, while it was being unloaded) and sometimes there’s even free lunch. On the other hand, the big drawback of interpreter jobs is that they take place somewhere else than my desk, quite often a somewhere else that isn’t all that easy to get to.

The wedding as well as the preparation meeting took place in the Vegesack district of Bremen. Now Bremen is an oddly shaped city. It’s long and narrow and stretches along the river Weser. Vegesack is at the far North West end of the city, while I live on the South East side. You can see the problem, because getting to the registry office in Vegesack meant driving all across the city during rush hour traffic. And of course one of the main thoroughfares through the city is caught in a permanent traffic jam due to extensive construction work, while the highway was blocked by a monster traffic jam as well. In the end, it took me one and a half hours for a trip that’s normally about an hour. Luckily I got started early enough.

I also realized that I should really retire Else, my aging GPS unit. First of all, Else constantly tried to direct me to the thoroughfare that was blocked due to construction work and got increasingly pissy when I ignored her directions. Normally I wouldn’t need GPS at all, since I know my way around Bremen’s city centre. But I’m pretty lost in the northern neighbourhoods, which are somewhat separate from the rest of the city, cut off by the harbour and the steelworks, so I needed Else to direct me to the registry office. And a pretty crappy job she did of it, too. On the way there, Else nearly directed me into a pedestrian zone. And on the way back (I programmed my home address into Else, so she would direct me back to the highway), Else repeatedly tried to direct me onto the ferry between Vegesack and Lemwerder, a village (and EADS factory) on the other side of the river Weser (The ferry has a live webcam, by the way). I didn’t even realize what Else was trying to do, until she had taken me to the ferry terminal and told me to turn left for the second time. “I can’t turn left here”, I yelled at the GPS, “Or I’ll drive straight into the river.” Then I realized that she wanted me to take the ferry. Which I didn’t do, because I hate ferries and besides, it takes forever to get back home from Lemwerder. Still, would it have killed the GPS programmers to have Else say something like “Drive onto the ferry”? Accidents have happened because GPS units directed drivers to ferry terminals without warning them. Here’s an account of an accident in Alaska a few weeks ago, which even caused a casualty, a cat.

Luckily, I neither ended up in the river nor stuck in a pedestrian zone, so I made it to the registry office on time and met with the bride and the groom in the waiting room. Indeed, the one who was late was the registry clerk and with good reason, too, because it turns out that Bremen registry clerks are seriously overworked. The northern neighbourhoods of Bremen have 100000 inhabitants and four registry clerks to serve them.

Now I’m not very familiar with the civil wedding process in German at all. I’ve never been married myself, never been a wedding witness and since civil weddings in Germany usually include only very close friends and relatives, I’ve never been a guest at a civil wedding, either. The closest I’ve come to civil weddings was when I did an internship at the townhall as a student and would see the couples leaving the townhall after their weddings every Friday. But apart from that, all I know about civil weddings in Germany is what everybody knows. And as usual, “what everybody knows” isn’t all that accurate. In fact, I strongly suppose that most of us base our image of what civil weddings are like on the Vegas quickie weddings we see in American TV shows and movies and extrapolate that it’s similar in Germany, only without Elvis impersonators.

The truth, alas, is quite a bit more complicated. For starters, you can’t just go and get married in Germany, not even after they changed the law a few years ago. There’s always a waiting period, unless one of the partners has a life-threatening illness (and yes, these things happen according to the registry clerk). There was also talk of the so-called “Aufgebot”, which is basically a publicly posted notice that a couple is intending to get married, similar to the “calling of the banns” that we know from Jane Austen and countless Regency romances (still exists in the Anglican church, too), even though I could have sworn that the necessity of an “Aufgebot” was abolished years ago. And now try to translate “Aufgebot” to someone from a culture which apparently does not have this practice. I think I even described it as “like the calling of the banns” at one point.

If you’re getting married to a foreign national, the waiting period can be quite long, because the German state requires papers, lots of them. The registry clerk actually apologized for all the papers they required and for how long everything took. The preparation meeting alone took three hours and the couple has apparently been trying to get married for a year now. As for why the preparation meeting took so long, they were very thorough, doublechecking every bit of data, explaining why it’s necessary to ask whether bride and groom are over 18, sound of mind and not related by blood or in-laws (“It’s not an insult, they have to ask this.”) and so on. There was an extensive discussion of naming practices. Apparently, Philippine law allows for the abbreviation of commonly used first names even on official documents, which is a huge no-no in Germany. I actually demonstrated to the bride on a piece of paper how she had to sign her name after marriage. She’ll end up with one of those characters that only exist in Germany in her name, too.

There was also an A4 sheet full of legalese in small print containing the relevant paragraphs from German family law about marriages to foreign nationals, which I had to translate and explain to the bride. Apparently, we do have legal provisions what happens in case a German national marries someone from a country where polygamy is legal, which I for one did not know. I skipped that bit, after I ascertained that polygamy is not legal in the Philippines – not that I thought it was, but I had to check.

I actually have a new appreciation for registry clerks after this experience, since at least the gentleman we ended up with did his best to explain why all those pesky questions were necessary and why it was important that the bride knew and understood her legal options and rights. Apparently, they are very careful to make sure that non-German partners are informed about their options and that they don’t feel rushed, because they do see things like mail order brides (which this case obviously wasn’t – the couple had met while the husband was working in the Philippines) and arranged marriages where consent is dubious.

Another little thing that I liked is that the so-called “Stammbuch” – another specifically German thing, which is basically a bound book, which contains a couple’s marriage certificate as well as the birth certificates of any children they might have; I translated it as “family book” – not just has several different styles available to choose from (in my parents’ day there was just one style with a brown vinyl cover), but that there are also “Stammbuch” styles specifically designed for gay and lesbian couples. And the couple which had the preparation meeting before ours was a lesbian couple, which gave me a little kick.

On the downside, the municipal office building where the meeting took place houses not just the registry office but also the foreign citizens’ office (I hesitate to call it immigration office, because both the German name and the general attitude make it very clear that they don’t consider the foreign nationals who have to register there immigrants) and yet the toilets were labeled only with German words, no pictograms, no multiple language signs, nothing. Even though there are plenty of people whose first language is not German and who may not speak the language all that well who have business in that building. I actually had to show the bride where to find the toilets (and explained what the signs meant), because she wouldn’t have found them otherwise.

The upside of all this is that the happy couple now has a fixed wedding date and that I’ll be interpreting at the wedding as well, even though I’m not a court approved interpreter, because the registry clerk was very impressed by my interpreting skills. Which means that I’ll actually get to attend a civil wedding next month. When the registry clerk showed us what the wedding room looked like, where the couple would sit, where I would sit (next to the bride), etc… it suddenly occurred to me that I’ll probably end up featuring quite prominently in someone’s wedding photos. My next thought – and yes, sometimes I’m terribly feminine – was, “Oh crap, what do I wear?”

So all in all, this was a new experience for me and definitely one of the more interesting interpreter jobs I’ve had.

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6 Responses to My GPS tries to kill me and the unexpected difficulties of international weddings

  1. Pingback: [links] Link salad for a Portland Thursday | jlake.com

  2. Estara says:

    So cool! Not about your gps trying to kill you but about you helping with interpretation at that wedding.

    • Cora says:

      This was only a preparatory meeting, the actual wedding is next month. And yes, this was one of the coolest interpreter jobs I’ve ever had.

  3. This is a fascinating tale. I popped in here to say that it’s “the banns of marriage” not the “bans”. The extra n distinguishes the proclamation from the forbidding.

  4. Pingback: Adventures in Wedding Interpretation | Cora Buhlert

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