Friday, April 20, 2007


He is paramount, she is equal

The recent Berlin Declaration marking the 50th anniversary of the EU was 'politically translated' according to a story that seems to have originated here (for the Danish-enabled). This is the BBC's version:
Sharp-eyed professors have spotted what they say is evidence of "political translation" of the EU's Berlin Declaration, agreed at the weekend. Both the Danish and English versions downplay the emotional language of the original German, they say.
Instead of saying that the EU member states are united in "happiness", they say that they have united "for the better", or "for the common good".
An EU spokesman said the texts had been agreed by the national governments.
"We, the citizens in the European Union, are united zu unserem Gluck", the German-language version of the declaration reads. The phrase can be rendered in English as "united in our fortune/happiness". By contrast, the English-language version reads: "We, the citizens of the European Union, have united for the better".
But 'united in our fortune/happiness' is not what the German means. In fact, it is not at all obvious how to come up with a translation that both matches the original and also contains some word equivalent to 'Glück'.

That is not to say of course that the the translation was not tweaked or sanitised by politically savvy mandarins. But there is certainly no sign of any subtle polishing in the paragraph immediately following:
... for us, the individual is paramount. His dignity is inviolable. His rights are inalienable. Women and men enjoy equal rights.
I know there are a lot of grammar-book pedants around but surely nobody but a translator could have strung together such a gratingly unnatural and almost comically inappropriate sequence.

The articles suggest that the original version of the text is the German one. Of course, there's no reason to take that for granted - even in a time of German presidency. In fact, as a German speaking I must say that the phrase "zu unserem Glück vereint" sounds not at all idiomatic (I personally couldn't spontanously say what it means). Of course, in a solemn declaration such an unsusual way of putting things can be easily done on purpose. However, as we see in the following few examples of other language versions, the German version corresponds literally with the Portuguese one. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that in Portuguese (the mother tongue of the Commission President) it's a more natural expression - which would be a clue in tracing it back.

Anyway, could "we ... are luckily united" have worked as an English version?

Wir Bürgerinnen und Bürger der Europäischen Union sind zu unserem Glück vereint.

Nós, cidadãs e cidadãos da União Europeia, estamos unidos para o nosso bem.

Noi cittadini dell'Unione europea siamo, per nostra felicità, uniti.

Los ciudadanos y ciudadanas de la Unión Europea, para fortuna nuestra, estamos unidos.

Notre chance pour nous, citoyennes et citoyens de l'Union européenne, c'est d'être unis.

We, the citizens of the European Union, have united for the better.

Wij burgers van de Europese Unie hebben het geluk verenigd te zijn.

Vi, borgerne i Den Europæiske Union, er forenet til fælles bedste.
I'm reliably informed that the original was German.

That’s not to say that a particular phrase in the declaration wasn’t formulated by somebody of different mother tongue, as you suggest, but it seems that in fact it may have been Chancellor Merkel herself who came up with this one:

It’s interesting you say that the German is not entirely transparent, as this weakens the 'political translation' theory considerably. A similar point is made in the Tagesspiegel piece, which suggests that the phrase is left deliberately ambiguous:

Es war wohl Merkels Entscheidung, die Passage bewusst doppeldeutig zu halten. Sind die Europäer glücklich vereint? Oder zum Glück gezwungen?

As regards your translation, I'd say ‘luckily’ is not the right word to use in this context.
Thanks for elaborating on this. Yes, I'd say the meaning of the phrase in German is blurred, to say the least. The Tagesspiegel article is a fine example of political text analysis.
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