Saturday, June 30, 2007


EU legislation unrenamed

Under the EU's now defunct constitutional treaty, regulations and directives were to be renamed laws and framework laws respectively, apparently in the name of jargon-busting (inter alia).

I note with relief from the presidency conclusions of the recent EU summit that the reform treaty now being mooted will revert to the terminological status quo:
the denominations "law" and "framework law" will be abandoned, the existing denominations "regulations", "directives" and "decisions" being retained.
It may be that in other languages the proposed terms would have represented an improvement on the existing situation. But that would certainly not have been the case in English. For one thing, the term directive is by now reasonably familiar and to replace it at this stage with an equally obscure but unfamiliar term (framework law) would serve only to confuse and alienate further, presumably the opposite of what was intended.

The same applies to the proposed replacement of regulation with law. Only here there is an additional source of confusion. The English word law covers the ground of two words in many of the other languages (e.g. droit and loi in French).

The point was raised in a report on the constitutional treaty by a select committee of the British House of Lords:
A further difficulty is created by the use of the term, in English, "European law". This hardly adds to the clarity. While the German and French texts may translate well into "europaisches Gesetz" and "loi européenne" the term does not work in English. In English, "laws" derive from many sources (including Parliament, the courts, local authorities, the judges and, not least, the Union). Calling a rule "a law" does not indicate its origin or status compared with other laws. "European law" and "European laws" in current parlance simply means law made by or emanating from the Union. Yet another problem, at least in the English language, is the recognition that European law is not restricted to European legislation but also includes principles laid down by the Court of Justice.
It is often observed how dominant the use of English has become in international contexts, even in the professedly multilingual EU. But it is not always appreciated how superficial this ostensible primacy can be.

Saturday, June 23, 2007


L'interprète qui s'ignore

The webstream of the Floyd Landis hearing (see earlier post) is apparently no longer available (wonder what that's about) but I still want to comment on the strange instruction given by the presiding arbitrator to the interpreter before he went about his work. This was to 'translate the words' and, explicitly, not to interpret.

Now personally I don't regard it as a major crime to refer to interpreters as translators, although it can sometimes cause confusion (e.g. when delegates at international gatherings complain of problems with 'the translation', as they sometimes do, and it's not clear whether it's the spoken or the written word that has been traduced).

But how bizarre to enjoin the interpreter specifically not to do precisely what he's there to do.

Now it's not as if the word 'interpreter' was some insider jargon unknown to the wider world. It is after all the established term at the UN and the EU and many other places

There's even been a major-release movie entitled 'The Interpreter', all about an interpreter.

So what can the arbitrator possibly have had in mind when he instructed the interpreter not to interpret? He can hardly have been unaware that interpreters are commonly known as 'interpreters'.

Does he think that what interpreters do when 'interpreting' is to polish up what the speaker says and that they have a second mode of operation ('translating the words') which is less fancy but more faithful?

And, more to the point, how could the interpreter then solemnly undertake not to do what he knew he was just about to do (and was contractually bound to do)? Could it be that all his career long - à la Monsieur Jourdain - he had been interpreting without knowing it?


Hyper-correct and pretentious

A headline in today's Guardian:
Chancellor insists prime minister resists move to drop free market clause
That should have been a warning but this second headline still threw me:
Chancellor insists Sarkozy move is watered down
Of course if you go on and read the piece it's clear what is meant. But why make it unclear in the first place?

From the Guardian Style Guide:
The author Somerset Maugham noted more than 50 years ago: "The subjunctive mood is in its death throes, and the best thing to do is put it out of its misery as soon as possible." Would that that were so.Most commonly, it is a third person singular form of the verb expressing hypothesis, typically something demanded, proposed, imagined: he demanded that she resign at once, I proposed that she be sacked, she insisted Jane sit down.
The subjunctive is particularly common in American English and in formal or poetic contexts: If I were a rich man, etc. It can sound hyper-correct or pretentious, so use common sense; Fowler notes that it is "seldom obligatory"
Since 'insist' can be followed by either the indicative or the subjunctive, but with very different meanings, perhaps style (as they call it) could have yielded to substance in this case.

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