Lawyer-linguists: making EU legislation mean the same in all languages

Some 27 member states, 23 languages but one set of laws - how does the EU ensure the rules mean the same across the whole bloc? Three of Parliament's lawyer-linguists talked to us about the challenges and intricacies of their job.

Man consulting pile of books
Lawyer-linguists - helping make EU law clear

"Our job is to ensure the quality of EU legislation in all 23 EU languages and the legal and linguistic consistency between the language versions. It is very important to have well-drafted and consistent EU legislation, so that citizens and businesses are able to understand it and member states can implement it properly," Hugo explained.

Lawyer-linguists and translators = apples and oranges  

Lawyer-linguists are not translators. "We are far from being just a linguistic service," said Viorel. "Our main goal is to provide on-demand drafting and procedural assistance in-house, in the original language (of the text) and only as a secondary part, not less important but to a lesser amount, we verify translations."

Each lawyer-linguist works in a topic team dedicated to one or two committees, assisting in drafting legislation (mostly in English) and in a 2-3 member mother tongue language team checking translations of drafted texts.

They don't spend the whole time behind their computers, they are also present at negotiations. "During negotiations we can step in and say: 'this will not work, it should be formulated differently'. We are not trying to tell the politicians what to do, but if asked, we can advise them," said Hana. "We cannot do good work if we don't know what is at stake, what are the political challenges and sensitivities," Viorel added.

Lawyers with a feel for language

Every lawyer-linguist in the European Parliament must pass a competition testing their legal qualifications and language skills. "You have to have a law degree or equivalent and need to speak at least two languages in addition to your mother tongue," Hugo explained. "A lawyer-linguist has to have a feel for language. During the drafting of the legislation we try to imagine how the text would be translated into other languages, so that we avoid vague and unclear formulations," Hana added.   

They all agree that it is a challenge to avoid using 'Eurospeak'. "I try to avoid Anglicisms wherever there is a Czech equivalent," said Hana. "We try to keep our language fresh and as little contaminated as possible," agreed Viorel. They get their inspiration, for example, from classical literature, but keep an eye on how their language develops. "You have to make sure EU-specific words are used appropriately and within reason," said Hugo.

"The job is getting more interesting as we are getting more involved in the earlier stages of legislative drafting," said Hana. "We can bring our experience and analytical and diplomatic skills to the final text." Viorel added: "We enjoy the challenge and the satisfaction that you get with each file that you see was written properly."  

Hana is Czech, Hugo is British and Viorel is Romanian.

Further information