28 November 2004

Today's online Japan Times has some fascinating advice for the European Union… and a story that doesn't reflect reality all that well in its examples, even if its perspective is difficult to oppose:

Overseas, translations are carried out in an organized manner. In the 25-nation European Union, for example, each country's laws and ordinances are translated into 20 official languages, such as English, French, German and Spanish. As many as 12 million specialists are involved in the process.

"Found in Translation" (28 Nov 04).

The article approves of an effort to translate Japanese law into English. Where it fails, though, is that it misunderstands what "law" means—and the EU is an excellent example of that misunderstanding. Many nonlawyers assume that statutes and regulations are the heart of the law. That is a less-common problem here in the US, with our truly independent judiciary and a media that at least sometimes understands the power of the courts to fill gaps in the statutory and administrative legal framework. Civil-law countries (such as most of the EU, and the EU's own system) try to pretend that, instead, the courts merely interpret the existing law for particular matters, and do not make law. Instead, bureaucrats and lobbyists legislators purportedly make all of the law. And that is precisely the gap in the EU's translation program: It doesn't reach to case law, or at least not in a timely fashion. As the IPKat reminds us all too frequently, English is frequently the last of the "official" languages to get translations of case law and even administrative opinions from the Advocate—and, as I've added, the quality of writing is appalling in whatever language they're in.

So, while I applaud the sentiment of the JT editorial, I think it seriously underestimates the scope of what is really necessary. That said, so does the EU. Keep in mind that communication involves more than just putting something into the words that sound like someone's language; it involves communication of cultural imperatives. And nowhere is that more important than in the context of attempts to influence behavior—which is precisely what, at its core, law must be.