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EU Translation Problems

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EU Translation problems
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  384  w Arturo Tosi © The Author Journal compilation © 2005 Blackwell Publishing Ltd   International Journal of Applied Linguistics w  Vol. 15 w  No. 3 w  2005 © The Author Journal compilation © 2005 Blackwell Publishing Ltd  Viewpoint EU translation problems and the danger of linguisticdevaluation Arturo Tosi Royal Holloway University of London and Università degli Studi di Siena On 20 July 2005, the European Union webpages (http://europa.eu.int/prelex)reported that the Commission would be “adopting a Communicationreviewing and adjusting its strategy for the provision of translation services”(to ‘adopt a communication’ is a standard expression in EU institutions):In May 2004, in order to cope with the incorporation of nine newlanguages in its daily work, the European Commission adopted a seriesof practical measures, including a demand-management system to ensurethat the standard length of documents is respected. 15 months later,the Commission adopts a new Communication which assesses lastyear’s text and also draws lessons for the future, especially as regards theintroduction of further official languages, setting out to strengthen therole of translation in the decision-making process.The same document stresses that the new Communication is “a contributionto the Union’s multilingual system and its democratic legitimacy”. In connec-tion with the issue of translation, the Communication concludes thattranslation has now entered the centre stage of policy-making and must be integrated into the preparatory process from the outset in order toprevent it from becoming a constraint on the Commission’s work.The experience gained from the enlargement of 2004 must be used tohelp prepare for the arrival of further official languages with the nextenlargement.As a European citizen, a linguist and a keen supporter of the policythat “Europe must speak with a single voice in many languages”, I welcomethis news as a new opportunity for the European Union to reassess its com-mitment to multilingualism, to review its system of multilingual translation  © The Author Journal compilation © 2005 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Viewpoint  w  385 and, in particular, to turn its attention to the quality of communication ratherthan the quantity of languages. Substantial rethinking of all these issues isnow long overdue for two reasons: (1) there seems to be an unstoppableprocess that is turning the voice of Europe into a new Eurospeak which isunpalatable to most Europeans; and (2) there is neither professional consensusnor official concern about the reasons for this degradation. One strongimpression emerging from the few scholarly attempts to understand thisphenomenon is that the voice of Europe is barely comprehended, not becauseof the translators’ individual skills but as a result of anomalous proceduresin the translation system. This view, however, does not seem to have hadmuch impact on either the decision-makers or the general public.In a Eurosceptic country such as Britain, it is commonly held thatthe language of European institutions is rendered incomprehensible bycontinental bureaucracies. However, although in other parts of Europe peoplethink that it is quite normal for administrations to use obscure language –and in some countries (like Italy) it would be a matter of great suspicion if it were otherwise – if we read different linguistic versions of the same EUdocument expecting to find features typical of the officialese of their respectiveMember States, we shall be surprised. The Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Germanand other versions of Eurospeak are not comparable in structure, morphologyor vocabulary with the language of the bureaucracies in their own countries.The official voice of Europe has few unnecessary technicisms, few archaismsor bold foreign borrowings in any language. Nor does it have the samepretentious juridical style that we find in texts marked by the tone and styleof traditional bureaucracies. What we do find, instead, is a textual uniformity,whatever the topic or readership, based on approximations that areimmediately recognizable as impairing good communication. The words areclear enough, the syntax not structurally complex, and apart from a few newforeign borrowings, there are no obvious discrepancies with ordinarylanguage. Yet lexical vagueness and weak logical connections spread a senseof mechanistic virtuality that makes the voice of Europe sound awkward,abstract and completely distant from any language spoken in everyday life.Here is an example:Schools must not only allow for critical faculties to be developed at alllevels, among both pupils and teachers, it must also encourage it.Its open environment, cooperation requirements and duty to prepareyoung people for employment must not be allowed to prevent it fromaccomplishing its main function, however, which is to guide the youngpeople in its care in their personal and social development.These observations about the use of language in diverse administrativecultures help to raise some issues about communication in Europe and itspolicy of multilingualism – the often quoted slogan that the EU speaks witha single voice in many languages. Indeed, for a multilingual federation the  386  w Arturo Tosi © The Author Journal compilation © 2005 Blackwell Publishing Ltd project of acting with a single voice is a prerequisite to maintaining itsinternal democracy and political unity.In connection with this ambitious project, two questions come tomind. First, can Europe protect multilingualism at a time when oneinternational lingua franca is hegemonic? Second, is its system of multilingualcommunication equipped to deal with the unprecedented number of languagecontacts arising from our increasing levels of cultural globalisation? Theseare not just academic questions. Anyone who has heard of ‘language death’knows that many languages across the world have become endangered whenthe old language begins to lack the resources to translate from the newlanguage, and the meanings of the latter become more accessible even tonon-native speakers. The quality of translation, therefore, should depend ona system which allows translators to make an informed choice betweenalternatives.However, in recent years, even when problems of legal equivalence werehighlighted by the media and the general public, and working partiesand individual Members of Parliament addressed issues of validity andtransparency, translating was not addressed as an essential part of thecommunication process. Thus, the issue of equivalence was scrutinized froma legal but not a linguistic perspective. Today, as European integrationadvances, there is increasing awareness of the disagreements related to legalequivalence, but the concept of ‘equivalence’ remains an axiomatic attributeof the different language versions, not a quality that can be modified anddemonstrated. Member States seem to accept legal equivalence as a  faitaccompli (partly because the EU presents itself as a guarantor), and this hasconsolidated institutional confidence in the current system of word-for-wordtransposition. But the debate on legal equivalence has so far prevailed overthat relating to good communication.EU translators are encouraged to believe that all translations are equal, aslong as the single units in their texts are replaced one by one, and if care istaken to ensure that those in the new language correspond to those in thesource language. This superficial approach is extended to all textual features,from the graphic lay-out to the typographic style, including the length of thesentences and the punctuation. The result is an impressive visual  correspond-ence, but this superficiality clashes with the linguistic anomalies in the textsand the differences in meaning between the different language versions.The impression that comparability is evaluated internally by the EUinstitutions themselves rather than being based on criteria aiming atclear communication with each national community is reinforced by theinsistence on correspondence in visual appearance rather than content. Suchcorrespondence is appreciated by the staff within the EU institutions, butthe recipients of EU materials in the Member States are not interested insuch internal comparability – they are more concerned about the readabilityof the text on the basis of national language standards. Thus, adopting aword-for-word approach, which was, perhaps, introduced to limit the risks  © The Author Journal compilation © 2005 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Viewpoint  w  387 of unequal interpretation, today seems to indicate an anachronistic faith inthe exact correspondence between language systems.Translators are not encouraged to act as mediators between the intentionsof the writers and the effect of their translations on the readers. Two obstacleshinder translators in achieving this objective: (a) the separation of thetranslation service from the main operations; and (b) the anonymousand collective (rather than individual) responsibility of translators. Thisoversimplified perception of translation, encouraging the straightforwardsubstitution of all items in a text and the direct transfer of its format andpunctuation from one language into another, can be stretched to the limit toachieve a ‘flexible’ use of human resources. Accordingly, the text given toItalian translators, for example, may not be the srcinal version (English), but itself a translation (French or Spanish) functioning as a ‘bridge’ betweenthe source and the target language. Sometimes separate sections of the sametext are given to different translators using the same source language; atother times different translators use diverse source languages for the samedocument. This may be administratively convenient but it is not politicallyadvantageous for the EU’s battle in support of multilingualism. Theintegration of Europe has led to the recognition that the exchange from onecurrency to another resulted in an unnecessary loss of resources as far as themonetary system is concerned. Hence the introduction of the euro. In theabsence of a linguistic equivalent to a common European currency, the needfor some kind of conversion remains. But European institutions should notnaively assume that, after countless linguistic transactions, the final versionof a text will preserve the same content as the srcinal.It is interesting that some of the keenest promoters of a review of thetranslation system in EU institutions are the translators themselves. Theirhigh level of plurilingual competence makes them aware of the complexityof transferring meanings across languages for readers from different cultures.EU civil servants, who generally have only a basic communicative competencein a second language, and politicians, who are frequently monolinguals,often see the linguistic division of Europe as a barrier easily removed bysimple mechanical transfers from one set of words to another. The search fortechnical solutions, especially those provided by modern technology, has benefited from this atomistic view of language, and technological supportformultilingualism has been treated as an important priority. This path should be pursued, but not perhaps at the cost of other research, without which theapplication of modern technologies cannot be evaluated. For example,research is needed into the so-called workbenches: the memory system whichenables translators to search gigantic memories to then adapt, cut and pastetexts from previously translated sentences and to put the new translations incyberspace to feed a memory for years to come. Linguists should seriouslyinvestigate whether the adoption of such workbenches does help to promotelanguage standardization close to national use or whether they will speedup the emergence of a multilingual supranational jargon.
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