EU legislation – a multicultural challenge

March 14, 2016 10:00 am

When I was asked some years ago to create a new terminology service for the European Parliament, the related tasks and objectives were considered to be of a highly technical nature. In fact, the management, and coordination among translation units, of terminology matters had until then merely been an auxiliary task of the IT service of the Directorate-General for Translation.


Moreover, all other EU institutions – which had recently begun to collaborate in the management of the Inter-Active Terminology for Europe (IATE), a new, interactive terminology database containing multilingual entries for all European terms available in the ten official languages current at the time – regarded terminology as simply the task of maintaining the IATE tool in order to improve the consistency of translations and ease the work of the numerous translators, thereby saving time and money, just as the use of the Euramis translation memory permitted the reuse of already translated sentences.

As I saw it, however, coordinating terminology among the languages of the European Union was not just a technical issue, nor simply a means of contributing to the quality of translations, but something much more. It posed a real challenge, of great political impact, of addressing what is at heart a cultural issue: the very inspiring adventure of seeking to bridge, by means of the languages used in EU legislation, the very disparity in culture that accounts for the diversity of our European family.

One of the first issues that this family had to face when it came together was multilingualism. The use of all the languages of the Member States was the first concern of the European Union, and the objective of its very first legislative act. Regulation No 1 of 15 April 1958 recognises the languages of the Member States as official languages of the whole European Community, stipulating that they are of equal standing in all activities. One can see a symbolic meaning in the fact that Regulation No 1 remains in force after more than 50 years, its list of officially recognised languages gradually extended each time one or more countries joined the European family. Multilingualism in the European Union, now numbering 28 Member States and 24 official languages, has become a very complex issue, with many aspects. It presents a daily challenge in all activities of the European Union, where a constant effort needs to be made to strike the right balance between, on the one hand, the wish to respect, and profit from, the cultural asset of linguistic diversity and, on the other hand, the need to ease communication in a common entity.

manheim 1Multilingualism in the European Union raises many questions. Each language represents a different culture. The European Union allows its citizens to interact by guaranteeing, as a cultural right, the use of the 24 officially recognised languages of the Member States. However, more than 24 languages are spoken in the Member States, and some of these have official status in the countries in which they are spoken. This creates a second dilemma: how many cultures are represented by how many languages within the borders of the European Union? How can administrative and political criteria determine the importance of a language? By what standard can one language be considered more important than another, thereby negating the linguistic and cultural criteria that characterise a distinct language? Should not the European Union provide for the protection of all languages spoken by its citizens, in recognition of their worth – on equal terms – as cultural assets, in order to preserve the rich cultural diversity underpinning its primary claim to be something more than just a political or financial association of national and regional entities?

There is indeed great cultural diversity in the 28 Member States. Reflecting Europe’s long history, each presents a wealth of different cultures, often expressed in different languages. We need to speak about languages here, not dialects, though the distinction is subject to uncertain criteria reflecting regional and political interests evolving over time. In addition to the 24 official languages of the EU, there are other European languages that, it can convincingly be argued, are no less deserving of recognition as milestones of European culture. The most commonly cited example is Catalan, in reflection of the very important Catalan independence movement in Spain. Spoken by some 11 million European citizens, taught in schools to more than seven million pupils, used as main language in universities and spoken in the regions of four countries, it has a rich literature and is even the official language of a European state, Andorra. There are several European languages listed on UNESCO’s map of endangered languages where no distinction is made between language and dialect. Another interesting example is Luxembourgish, which in 1984 became the official language of one of the six founding members of the European Union, but which did not become an official language of the EU for the simple reason that the Government of Luxembourg did not ask for it. In linguistic terms, Luxemburgish can be regarded a variant of German, spoken as well in some German regions. Interestingly, it is also spoken in regions of Belgium and of France. Having become the official language of Luxembourg, it is the main language of instruction in the first years of primary school in that country and one of the languages used in the University of Luxembourg. The EU even allows that proficiency in Luxembourgish serve as a criterion for access to certain faculties at that university and to certain professions in Luxembourg.


There are several other important languages in Member States that represent very old cultures with sometimes very distinct identities. These include Breton and Greek-Cypriot, languages that partly have an origin in, or that have a relation to, another European language, but which are the means of communication of a totally separate cultural group.

Of course, the European Union was not conceived as a cultural organisation, but as a community of states aiming to create common legislation in most fields of everyday life. This legislation becomes national legislation in all Member State and, in keeping with Regulation No 1, in all official languages of the Union. When you take in consideration the fact that 80 % of the Member States’ national legislation consists of EU legislation translated into each respective language, you grasp the challenge and difficulty of the terminology undertaking.

In this context, the cultural right to protect and preserve the languages spoken by the citizens translates into their civic or democratic right to plead in their own language when they appear before national or European courts.

In order to ensure this right, the European Union operates the world’s largest translation service, with some 5000 translators and interpreters working in more than ten EU institutions. Since the Lisbon Treaty came into force, which conferred to it the role of final legislator, some 1.8 million pages are translated every year at the European Parliament. This activity is coupled to a huge effort in the fields of computer-assisted translation and machine translation. The EU translation services have created the biggest multilingual legislation repository (EurLex), an enormous translation memory (Euramis), and the largest terminology database, containing some 11 million terms (IATE).

With the 24 current official EU languages, the number of linguistic combinations for translation and interpretation is 552. Every additional language would add a considerable number of combinations. This may happen soon if the referendum for the reunification of Cyprus to be held in the spring of 2016 opens the way for Turkish EU membership. It could also happen if Luxembourg decided to make Luxembourgish an official EU language, or if Spain acknowledges Galician, Basque and Catalan as official languages.


So many combinations cannot always be covered, especially if very tight deadlines are to be respected, as is most often the case. This means that it would be inconceivable that all languages spoken in Europe could become official EU languages. It would simply be impossible to implement the rules of multilingualism. Even now the system is under strain, such that – to ensure timely translation of all documents – English, French and German are used as ‘pivot’ languages, whereby translations first made into these languages are then used for translations into all other languages. In some situations Spanish, Polish and Italian are also used. Such a multilingual community, with staff from 28 different countries working closely together, also needs a common lingua franca. This is most often English, especially since 2003 when ten new countries joined the EU.

However, even though the European Union is not the ideal structure for ensuring, as a matter of cultural rights, the survival of each and every language and culture of its Member States, it nevertheless needs to provide common legislation that encompasses all the cultures sustaining the 24 official languages. The cultural aspect, and the diversity of our European family, has to be taken into account. This is a challenge that makes any administrative or political task, such as the production of legislation, a unique field of cooperation, a meeting point, a syncretism between so many approaches, traditions and sensibilities.

In order to be able to implement this common legislation, in all its territory and in all areas of its exclusive and subsidiary competence, one of the main tasks of the European Union is to provide a common terminology that ensures that every citizen has the same understanding of the concepts used, independently of what language the document is in. This is because regardless of the official language it is presented in, each legislative act is considered and recognised as an original act in the international legal and judicial system. This makes the coherence of the terminology used one of the most important means of bringing all these cultures together.

Following the same rules, and having the same rights and obligations, is a way of living together that allows for cooperation in every field of activity. For communicating basic needs a common lingua franca can be used, but for cooperation to be possible in every activity, and in such a wide range of specific fields, the participants need to be able use their native languages, and the possibility of doing so is the unique gift that multilingualism offers all citizens of the European Union.


Today technology offers many means of online collaboration and communication. There are many types of collaborative platforms for interactive teamwork that allow actors in institutions, academia and industry to collaborate in the collection and discussion of terminology. Using these possibilities to enhance the interoperability of resources saves time and avoids duplication of work, and leads to more consolidated results that ensure the quality of the translations. This can be combined with specialised software permitting term extraction, as well as metasearch functions encompassing several databases. Cloud technology allows for easy storage and consultation of term data. All this data, together with huge translation memories, are uploaded into the memories of computer-assisted translation tools and, gradually, machine translation programmes, step by step transforming the terminology used in all languages into a much more easily usable linguistic element, ensuring the consistency and quality of translated legislation.

Terminology is now everywhere. In today’s globalised and multilingual world, every company, every academic research centre and, of course, every international institution needs a glossary, or a larger database, to enable understanding and cooperation without the obstacle that the use of more than one language poses. This is why universities are increasingly treating terminology as a separate discipline, of interest not only to linguistic departments but also to other faculties, in recognition of the range of intellectual and technical issue it raises. Now that tagging and indexing of terminology data, and its interrelation in the different fields through ontologies in the semantic web, make of it not just a lexical collection of terms but a real source of knowledge, covering all fields of activity, a targeted search in a database allows the users to find any information they are looking for, such as job offers or other kinds of services.

In collecting, storing and managing the multilingual terminology in IATE, the translators working in different languages to feed this huge database are confronted every day with a range of issues pertaining to the cultural diversity of such a multicultural and multilingual community of nations.

12803110_1266743116675101_6814141426193921232_nIt is obvious that for a database containing the terminology of EU legislation, the ideal would be a normative tool that provides a translator seeking a specific term with one and only one solution. This can be very difficult, especially for languages that are spoken in more than one country, where the respective national administrations concerned sometimes use different terms for the same concept. The best example for this is German, used in five Member States (Germany, Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy) as well as in Switzerland and Liechtenstein which, since they are in close cooperation with the EU, apply EU legislation in many areas. For a given concept, the term used in one country may be different from the one used in another, and since both appear in national legal texts – that is, in reliable sources for the European terminology database – they must both be listed as variants in the same IATE entry. This means that translators must make a choice, with implications for the wording of future legislative acts. Another interesting example is Greek, in which terminology usage in Greece and Cyprus sometimes differ. Here we have the factor of time: Cyprus joined the EU 20 years after Greece, during which time Cypriot Greek terminology in certain fields has evolved independently of usage in Greek-language versions of EU legislative acts. When these acts are transposed into national law, they introduce wording that on occasion differs from that of pre-existing laws, resulting in two equally valid variants of the same term that both have to be listed in the corresponding database entry.

Such differences in terms used by administrations in different countries, whether throughout their respective territories or in specific regions sharing the same language with other countries or regions, depend very much on cultural differences among their populations.

This raises another question. Should the terminology of the European Union be regarded as prescriptive or descriptive? In other words, should the European institutions impose on the citizens of the 28 Member States a terminology determined by their translation services – a European jargon – or should these services collect the terms used in national administrations and enter them in the terminology database as valid terms for use in European legislative acts? A prescriptive approach would very much ease the work of the translation services, but it would also create a linguistic gap between the language used by EU technocrats, which often is not clearly understood by the citizens, and the everyday language used in each country.

IMG_1235Not all European institutions managing the database IATE adopted the same attitude on this issue. While the Commission and the Council – the two institutions producing most of the terminology used in drafts of European legislation acts – mostly create their own terminology, other institutions, such as the Court of Justice and the European Central Bank (as well as the Translation Centre that manages the terminology for the numerous EU agencies), work more on a bilingual basis for each concept and collect the terminology used by the respective national authorities. For example, the Court of Justice collects terminology from national case law, while the European Central Bank cooperates with Member States’ central banks and compiles very reliable bilingual glossaries of banking and financial terminology used by companies and citizens in daily commercial and financial activities in the Member States.

As in every terminology database, you have in IATE the option marking any one variant as ‘preferred’, but here a problem arises. What criterion should be used for making the selection? You can say that the term used in the European act must be the one marked as ‘preferred’, but then you don’t follow the descriptive approach, and you can hardly oblige the national Cypriot administration to abandon a term used for years in national legal texts in favour of a term used by the Greek administration and therefore present in IATE and EurLex.

Unity in diversity has always been, and will always remain, the main challenge for the European Union. The effort to stick to the principle of multilingualism, notwithstanding the administrative difficulties and cultural challenges, is the best proof of this. Consistency is terminology is the tool to achieve the implementation of the rules and principles governing our common European society.

If you want the German version of this article follow this link.

Rodolfo Maslias
Head of Unit TermCoord

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