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On The Shelf: Books in Non-Native Languages

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Josh Darland, an assistant project manager in the Law Library, brought me this book on Minnesota law, written in Danish and published in the United States in 1896.  He thought it would make a good post for our On the Shelf series because it was so unexpected.  And he was correct.

Minn - danish
Volume on Minnesota commercial laws, written in Danish. (All photos by Betty Lupinacci)

Though it’s not as unexpected as one might think.

This is a subject I first considered when Nathan Dorn gave our summer interns a look at some early American law books a couple years ago.  Among the treasures he displayed were early New York law books written in Dutch but published in the U.S.

If one thinks about the cultural history of the United States it makes perfect sense that immigrants would need such translations until they learned enough to read these documents in the language of their newly adopted country.

And once I started searching I found many more such items.  For example, when I limited my search to law books published in Louisiana pre-1900 that were written in French, I retrieved six titles, half of which were penned after Louisiana was admitted as a state in 1812.

I thought my focus would be solely on these early U.S. state materials, but my colleagues had loftier ambitions.

Ken Sigmund, for example, brought me two gems that were not written here for our immigrant population but were published abroad for people of other nations interested in our system of laws.

The Federalist Papers in Russian
The U.S. Constitution in Chinese

On the flip side, the Law Library collects relevant material on foreign and international law for the use of our Foreign Law Specialists‘ and the public.  Much of it is in the official language of each jurisdiction, but we also manage to find items written in English.  It is this type of material that many of us are more used to seeing than U.S. material in foreign languages.  Elizabeth Moore, who helped find these items in the Global Legal Resource Room, has remarked more than once that patrons are surprised to see how many of the titles that we have for any given country are not in English.

Published in Germany, but written in English
Chinese laws on AIDS, written in English
A treatise on Cyprus laws, written in English and published in Greece

So while it makes perfect sense that all of these items were published and that we see them on a fairly regular basis when shelving in the Minnesota section of our stacks, it’s still a bit of a surprise to find a volume printed in Danish.

As an added bonus, In Custodia Legis will be adding video content to some of our blog posts.  [You may have already seen a couple of these on the Law Library’s Twitter and Facebook pages.]  See our inaugural video of The Federalist Papers in a variety of languages below.

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