Lost In Translation

September 2006

In her movie of the same name, Ms. Sophia Coppola shows quite well that having an interpreter often does not make it any easier to understand what is going on in a foreign culture. Sometimes things just get lost in translation. Some of the problems my clients have come from the fact that the choice of words did not work for them no matter how perfectly the translation was done. One example found in my column over the years illustrates quite well what I mean by this. As far as I can remember, I have always used the term « French Congress » which is not truly the right word to describe the French legislative power. I know that, but at the same time, most of my readers are Anglophone and generally know the American system much better than any other. Therefore, transposing a concept from one country onto another is sometimes a more efficient way of explaining than offering a perfect translation. Indeed, our French word "parlement" can be exactly translated in English to "parliament". Still, my impression is that the majority of Anglophone people are not necessarily well-versed in British political sciences and would have a hard time fully understanding what is described with this word. There is one last element I would like to add. In provision 26 (article 26) of the current French constitution, there is a description of the special procedure where the entire legislature sits together for special votes. This procedure is called "called as Congress" or in French, "Parlement convoqué en Congrès". Do I really need this kind of lengthy explanation to ground this decision?

On June 1st, just after I sent out the column, I received this message in an email: "The Engllish in the later paragraphs is not understandable." I assure you that this is a copy-paste of the content of the message. English is not my native language, so I admit that on numerous occasions, my very first draft contains very hard to understand paragraphs. What reassures me some is that professional authors also feel that sections of their first draft are as clear as mud. I do feel bad for the team of editors who help me with putting together this column and whose work is blamed just as much as mine by this comment. It reminded me of a harsh response I got from a French born bilingual lawyer after my first attempt to syndicate my column. The last sentence of his letter was, "This underlines the necessity of obtaining qualified advice on specific individual circumstances, rather than relying upon "kitchen sink" solutions based upon irrelevant generalizations or incorrect assumptions". The last paragraph of my reply to him stated, " Our modern society has an ever increasing need for legal specialists. You are one of them, and you seem to serve your community with excellence. My readers learn that, more often than they first think, they need legal specialists. I do not have a problem with my column smelling of the kitchen sink if this is the price to pay in order to reach this goal." This letter was sent during the month of November 1998 and its content is still true today.

A client seeking advice from a professional cannot ask a « stupid question » no matter how idiotic it seems to be. If there are questions left unanswered, my work has not been completed. This rule is even more pertinent when the client is a foreigner trying to understand what is going on in France. One client experienced a situation that synthesized all this quite well. A foreigner was selling a Parisian apartment and the presale contract stated that there was a kitchen and a very short list of furniture to be purchased as part of this transaction. To make a long and difficult story short, the French buyer threatened to cancel the closing and probably the sale altogether because the seller was not complying with the provisions of the contract. Indeed a few appliances had been left in the kitchen. The seller, exasperated, said at one point, "I am selling an apartment with a kitchen, these things are part of the kitchen by definition anyway." It happens that legally speaking in France the kitchen is the room where you find the kitchen sink - nothing else - when the lodging is sold. So on the evening before the closing date I went to the apartment, removed the few appliances left, and put them on the sidewalk so that the specialized team from the city could pick them up. The next morning the sale went through very smoothly. So much was getting lost in translation!


Best regards,
Jean Taquet

PACS AND A WILL IN FRANCE

QUESTION

I am American and my partner is French. We recently purchased a new apartment in Paris and therefore we need to update our PACs paperwork to reflect this, and I am also creating a will with an attorney in the US. I need to French-ify (sp?) this document. Should it be done before or after the update of the PACS?


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ANSWER

Before answering your question, I need to explain several issues. A PACS is a rather unique institution available to heterosexual and homosexual couples, and it is a legal alternative to marriage. PACS stands for Pacte Civil de Solidarité and is a contract signed by both partners in which their life together is organized. I very often refer to the PACS itself as a sort of prenuptial agreement signed before the wedding. The main difference between a marriage and a PACS is that there is no ceremony with a PACS, just the registration of this document with the nearby Small Claims Court (Tribunal d'Instance), which makes it valid and therefore enforceable. Therefore, exactly like the prenuptial agreement, this document should not be changed when property is purchased or sold. Indeed, this type of document defines the right of ownership of both assets and debts between the partners and not the actual list of assets and debts. A PACS can create an agreement of universal community property, a total separation of assets, or a partial community regime. Therefore the provisions of the PACS define who owns what, which legal assumption is made for which assets and debts, which ratio of ownership is used in which case and so on.

There is indeed now an urgent need now for you to decide who will be the beneficiaries of your will. You are showing great wisdom considering that you now own a valuable asset. My concern here is that if you draft an American will and then "French-ify" it, I am afraid that the document will be declared null and void by the French authorities. The first reason is that the most common French will, called an olographe is handwritten on plain paper and bears only your writing and your signature. Should it have the signatures of witnesses, it is not valid. Therefore you are much better off dealing with a French notaire in order to have it done properly. Keep in mind that a French will cannot disinherit the children or the parents of the deceased.

OWING TAXES AFTER MOVED OUT OF FRANCE

QUESTION

We lived in France from 2000 to 2003, leaving in March 2003. Before we left, we went to the Tax Office where an official figured our 2002 and 2003 income taxes. We submitted the forms and paid the taxes. Sometime in 2004, we received a notice saying we owed more money. I did not understand why and didn't feel capable at the time of asking, so we ignored the notice. We received a few more notices, which we also did not answer. I'm feeling frustrated about this: we feel we went out of our way and assumed some financial hardship to pay in advance. What's the best way to handle this situation? They say we owe around 300 €.


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ANSWER

The organization of the French fiscal authority is quite complex and therefore needs to be explained before answering your questions. There are two totally separate branches that go all the way up to the ministry (Ministère des Finances). One is called "Le Centre des Impôts"; the amount of taxes you owe is calculated. The other one is called "Le Trésor Public"; then collect the tax money. So what I understand from your question is that just before leaving France you went to the office called « Centre des Impôts » to fill out the income tax declarations, and for each year the civil servant calculated your amount of taxes owed. Here are several possible scenarios.

The tax inspector can only give you an estimate of taxes owed and not a definitive amount due to the complexity of the calculation as well as the impact of your income tax status on the amount of lodging tax "taxe d'habitation". Therefore, should your income be sizable enough, you may owe 300€ more without anyone having done anything wrong per say.

Another explanation is that when the inspector made the calculation, he or she did not have access to your complete account and it could be that your account was negative and therefore no one could have caught that situation. When you went to pay the amount estimated by the tax inspector, the Trésor Public did not know about the forms you filled out and therefore, once you paid the estimated amount, your account must have had a substantial credit. It is only when the paperwork arrived from the Centre des Impôts that the Trésor Public was able to balance your account and see if you had a negative balance or not.

The final explanation is that one or maybe both offices made some errors and that you were asked to pay money that you did not owe.

To check the first scenario, look at each line of your documents and see if the amount of taxes on each line is more than the payment you made toward that specific tax for that year. If you see that small discrepancies that add up to the 300€, you have been asked to pay less than what you owed.

To check the second scenario, look more carefully and see if one line is missing the payment assigned to it. This would indicate that the tax inspector did not know of one or more unpaid tax bills. He only calculates the taxes he knows of. Probably this line or these lines will account for the discrepancy.

To check the third scenario, look at your bank statements and list all the payments you have made prior to the final check written before you left. Then you check the tax document and make sure that these payments have been recorded. If you do not see all of them then you have a legitimate claim to make.

Then comes the other side of the situation. Since several years have passed, part of your bill could for late fees, interests and penalties. If this is the case, it is possible that the initial amount could have been much smaller. In this case, you make the check out for the initial amount and you write an administrative letter explaining the situation since it is almost certain that the civil servants at the Trésor Public have no idea what happened, and then ask for the extra charges to be taken away. There is no guaranty that it will work for the entire amount, but it is really worth trying.

If you feel totally overwhelmed by all this, then you could be better off paying this amount rather than trying to get professional advice. I do not see how a professional can help you successfully for 300 €.


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