Laws in translation – multilingual mix-ups
The European Union has 24 official languages and all EU laws, secondary legislation, regulations, directives and treaties (around 2,500 a year) are translated into each of those languages and each language version is equally legally binding. This respect for linguistic diversity is an important feature of the EU and is even written into its Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Why is translating laws problematic?
Errors and discrepancies in translation tend to be caused by one of two things: a misunderstanding on the part of the translator or the target language having no way of expressing a source idea or linguistic feature. Translator errors need not be huge to skew the meaning of a phrase. For example, in the Dutch translation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the English term “unsolicited information” has been translated with the Dutch equivalent of “unwanted information”. It is easy to see why the Dutch translator chose “unwanted”, but the nuance is quite different from the original English meaning of “unsolicited” – which is more like “unrequested”. Afterall, it is possible for something to be wanted but unsolicited.
How is translated legislation problematic?
Although translators work very hard and employ several techniques to ensure the source meaning is conveyed as accurately as linguistically possible in the target text, a slight difference in meaning or nuance between translated words/phrases/texts and their sources is an extremely common occurrence. This can cause legal issues when this phenomenon occurs in the translation of laws and other legally binding documents. A well-known example of this is when, in 1993, German condiment manufacturer was ordered to pay a toll on the Polish-German border for importing sour cherries. The German company refused to accept the toll on the grounds that the German version of the EU law on import tax stated that only sweet cherries were subject to this kind of toll. However, all the other official EU language versions of the law stipulated that sour cherries were subject to customs clearance. The matter was resolved in the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which found that this particular part of the German version of the EU regulation was, in fact, a translation error. It may seem like a small matter, but the ECJ regularly resolves linguistic differences between translated EU regulation in cases which have much more serious consequences.
How can we resolve this?
Aside from translation discrepancies being identified in cases handled by the ECJ, the EU sometimes also carries out corrigenda of different language versions of laws to address these kinds of linguistic problems. Various other suggestions have been made to limit the number of issues arising from translated legislation, including limiting the number of languages they are translated into or naming an ‘overarching’ language version which overrides all others in disputes. However, no one can agree on which language ought to be given this special status – and this is understandable given the EU’s long-standing respect for linguistic diversity!
In terms of which law to refer to when, it’s worth bearing in mind that the national courts of each EU country have the authority to decide on the interpretation of the law in their country, with the ECJ having the final authority.