The EU consists of 27 states with 23 official languages and yet all have the same rights and obligations. But how is it ensured that legal texts mean the same thing in all languages? The current setup requires taking action such as hiring a service similar to Amharic translation services. We spoke to three linguists from the European Parliament about the challenges of their work.
The first version of a legislative proposal or amendment is usually drawn up in English. In the European Parliament, too, it is impossible to imagine life without the global working language. However, in order to treat all MEPs and citizens equally, official texts must be available in all 23 languages.
The Briton Hugo is a linguist lawyer in the European Parliament, together they fight against an almost Babylonian confusion of languages. ” ̈We ensure that the quality and content of EU law is consistent in all 23 official languages. Well-drafted EU legislation is crucial for citizens and businesses to understand and apply EU law.”
Advice for negotiators
Hugo, for example, speaks Italian, French, and Swedish in addition to his mother tongue English. However, linguists do not see themselves as translators. “We are not just a language service. Our main task is to draft texts if necessary and to support the legislative process with our legal expertise. Only to a small extent do we also check translations.”
The language lawyers are therefore not only organized according to their mother tongue but also according to subject areas and committees. Often they are already present at the negotiations of the deputies, explains the Czech Hana.
“We can step in and say, ‘This is not going to work.’ We don’t tell politicians what to do, but when asked, we advise.” Hana, who previously worked in the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the European Court of Justice, can rely on Czech, English, French, Swedish, Slovak, and, as she points out, roasted German and Russian.
If you want to work as a language lawyer in the European Parliament, you have to prove your legal knowledge and language skills. “You need a law degree and two other languages in addition to your mother tongue,” Hugo explains.
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The pitfall of EU jargon
A linguist needs a certain feeling for language, Hana adds. “While the bill is being drafted, we are already trying to imagine what the translation into other languages will look like to avoid unclear and ambiguous wording.”
A major challenge here is not to fall into EU jargon. “I try to avoid Anglicisms when there is an equivalent in Czech,” Hana explains. The eloquent lawyers are also inspired by classical literature. “You simply have to make sure that EU terminology is only used where it makes sense and is necessary.”
Cooperation with colleagues from other EU institutions, such as the Council of Ministers and international organizations, is also helpful. For example, the language lawyers of the Parliament are also in contact with lawyers of the US House of Representatives.
“Our task becomes particularly interesting when we are involved in early negotiation phases. Then we can contribute our experience and our analytical and diplomatic skills to the final text,” explains Hana. Although a comprehensible and easy-to-read legal text is less noticeable than a faulty draft, this is exactly what is a real success for language lawyers.