Reporting from Brussels – Translation Studies Days, part 2

Following Part 1, this post will discuss the second of the five studies on translation and related matters recently published by the Directorate-General Translation of the European Commission, presented at the Translation Studies Days held in Brussels on 20 & 21 September 2012.

Language and Translation in International Law and EU Law

This study, coordinated by Dr Réka Somssich, explores the role of language and translation in the global environment with special regard to legal instruments. A distinction is made between:

  • Macro level – involving language and translation when sovereign States conclude agreements among themselves, and
  • Micro level – in the context of international trade when goods, services, capital and persons cross national borders.

In her presentation, Dr Somssich explained that enhancing the EU internal market may increase translation requirements – such as for labelling requirements, whilst reducing language barriers to trade may weaken linguistic diversity.

The report covers translation as well as ‘interpretation’ (in the legal sense) of legislation by national and international courts, issues of non-uniform & official/unofficial translations, and language rights. Since the report is quite dense in terms of content, I suggest that readers make liberal use of the index on pp. 9-11. Two case studies are also included, the first on labelling under the WTO and EU regimes, and the second on patent systems, and in particular the proposals for an EU unitary patent.


As in the previous post, here is a selection of key points raised:

  • “The efficiency of the internal market must be balanced with legal quality and citizen’s security, the objective being cultural and linguistic diversity.”
  • “We must compare the text with the information that people get out of the text.”
  • “Shouldn’t non-authoritative translations of international texts be of high quality as they are a source of information for lawyers even if they are not a legal basis?” (You might be interested in this post on a similar subject.)
  • “It is not likely that a text in one or more languages will be interpreted by all people in the same way.”
  • “We could and should work more with model statutes, termbases, etc.”
  • “Databases are only a starting point – if we don’t have cross-border dialogue about concepts they will develop in different ways in different communities.”

Following the general panel debate, Professor Silvia Ferreri, a specialist in comparative law from the University of Turin, gave an enlightening presentation on problematic terms and legal false friends. She also added “sometimes the problem is not in the words but in the glasses of people reading them” (lawyers). Thus even if a translation is very good, lawyers are likely to read it through the lens of their own legal system background. Professor Ferreri are stated “we should stop teaching students about the their legal system, and instead look at how different cultures have resolved certain legal issues”. One of my favorite take-away quotes from her talk was:

If you hide reality, someone has to translate it!

Another of the panel members was Professor Sylvie Monjean-Decaudin, whose doctoral thesis, La traduction du droit dans la procédure judiciaire; contribution à l’étude de la linguistique juridique, was awarded the Prix de la Recherche de l’Ecole nationale de la magistrature in 2011. It has just been published (in French) by the prestigious legal publishing house Dalloz. I hope to review it in the next few months for you. You may also be interested in hearing her speak – I posted these links to a radio interview and video proceedings of a conference a few months ago.


The day came to close with a number of comments from the audience, which included many distinguished figures in the field.

Regarding continuing professional development and training, Helen Campbell offered the example of the ‘Salamanca model‘, whereby professional legal translators from international organizations attend a week-long seminar – in the morning they attend lectures, and, in exchange, share their experience with university students in the afternoons.

Maître Jean-Claude Amboise, Doctor of law and lawyer at the Paris Bar, specialised in French language law, underlined the fact that the courts focus on whether a translation is understandable, and not on language quality. In reply, Professor Monjean-Decaudin stressed that under the French system ‘interpretation’ is the exclusive domain of the judge, and that it might therefore be difficult to ‘admit’ that a translator could perform that function, to any extent.

Professor Jan Engberg suggested that efforts could be made to make source texts easier to understand and more consistent, drawing a parallel with work done on technical texts and ‘controlled languages’. He also underscored the importance of language awareness, and cross-border discussion.

You might also be interested in Part 3 and Part 4 of this series.

7 thoughts on “Reporting from Brussels – Translation Studies Days, part 2

  1. Thank you, as always, for sharing such an interesting material.

    Of particular interest I found this comment:

    “Professor Jan Engberg suggested that efforts could be made to make source texts easier to understand and more consistent”

    which would solve most of our troubles when confronted with a legal text to be translated. Sometimes, especially when reading briefs written by our local lawyers, I feel strongly inclined to recommend that they go back to school and take a course in language drafting and syntax… 🙂

    Many recommendations seem to be, however, in the “wishful thinking” area. Did you get the impression that something will be done effectively to implement those ideal conditions of our profession? Also, it seems very difficult to contend the belief that a text only needs to be “understandable” to fulfill its function, and that language quality does not matter. I argue that it does, because clarity of expression means clarity of meaning. When you doubt whether a verb refers to one or the other agent, this can have very dire consequences in a court of law…

    It is a bit frustrating that serious professionals take their craft seriously, only to be disregarded in favor of price-driven considerations and passed over for second-rate pseudo translators.

  2. Thanks very much, Nelida, for your input. I do get the feeling that there are serious moves afoot to improve the status of the translation profession. Let’s hope that they come to something *soon*. But of course, as Professor Pym (Part 1 of the Brussels report) said, translators themselves have to participate in those moves. Only when really professional serious translators are recognized on a level with other professions will those “pseudo” translators you mentioned be pushed out (hopefully!). Who would imagine seeing a “pseudo” doctor or lawyer?!

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