Monday, March 5, 2012

Words Matter: How the European Union Speaks to Itself

The European Union (EU) consists of twenty-seven countries and recognizes twenty-four languages as being "official." One might expect that a lot of time and effort goes into the translation of the many documents that such an organization must produce. What actually occurs is more complex, and more interesting, than mere translation.

David Bellos, in his book Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything, explains how the EU deals with its multiple languages. After Bellos spends most of his book explaining how difficult it is to translate meaning from one language to another, or even within a language, the EU approach was rather surprising. The various treaties that established and expanded the EU contain this phrase:

"This treaty, drawn up in a single original in the [list of languages], the texts in each of these languages being equally authentic...."

The EU has decided that each country and each language is to be treated equally. This means that all critical documents created must be created in the language of each country. While, as a practical matter, there is a lot of translating going on, twenty-four versions have to be created in twenty-four different languages and each has to convey exactly the same meaning—a task quite different from mere translation.

"The language-parity rule has many interesting consequences. It means that no official EU text can be faulted or dismissed or even queried on grounds of it having been incorrectly translated from the original, since every language version is in the original."

There are four official working languages—German, French, English, and Italian—and committees will choose one for their discussions. The participants have to not only be multilingual, but they must also be competent in the subject under discussion. This generally means they must be experienced civil servants or have training in legal matters. Bellos provides an example of how a regulation might be produced.

"A panel or subcommittee meets to draft a regulation. It uses one of the four official working languages of the EU....but there are always other language drafters present. The first draft is argued over not only for content but also for how it is going to be expressed in the other working languages. The draft is then translated and the committee reconvenes with the drafters to smooth out difficulties and inconsistencies in the different versions."

One can foresee many iterations and much discussion in order to hammer out the full suite of language versions.  Clearly, this is a lengthy and expensive process.

"DG Translation (the translation division of the European civil service) currently employs 1,750 linguists and 600 support staff, and spends vast amounts of money to produce millions of pages of administrative and legal prose each year...."

Legal cases have a separate path through the language maze. The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg (ECJ) has a single working language: French.

"All documents used at every level by the court are either written in French or translated into French by members of the army of language professionals who work there."

Plaintiffs may bring their case in any language they choose, so that requires that all documents also be translated into that language.

"The legal decisions of the court are made by all or some of the twenty-seven European advocates general, one appointed by each of the member states. The ultimate authority consists of a set of distinguished judges collectively speaking and writing all twenty-four languages of the EU. They use French for lunchtime conversations, informal consultations, and committee discussion, but they give their all-important opinions on the cases before them in their home tongues."

"....since the rulings of the ECJ have force in the entire EU, legal opinions are not released and do not come into effect until they have been translated into all twenty-four of the official tongues. Every section of the 750-strong corps of lawyer-linguists at the ECJ becomes involved at some stage in every decision that is made."

This is a rather complex process. Bellos indicates that one does become proficient at homing in on legal language that translates easily, but disputes over meaning still arise and generate another complex and costly process.

In the beginning there were six states and four languages. There were very good political reasons for insisting on language parity. One has to wonder if those reasons would have been sufficient if the founders realized that eventually there would be twenty-seven countries and twenty-four languages. Some things just do not scale well. Apparently it is still considered politically important because each suggestion to simplify matters has been beaten down over the years.

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