Last week I had a long train journey across the north of Spain from the Mediterranean (Tarragona) to the Atlantic (Irun). It took five and half hours, so I took along some good reading: a report that I picked up at the Mediterranean Editors and Translators’ Conference that I had attended the previous week. Witten by Jeremy Gardner for the European Court of Auditors this report explores European institutions quirky and sometimes misleading use of English.
The opening sentence sums it up very neatly "Over the years the European institutions have developed a vocabulary that differs from that of any recognised form of English". He goes onto to identify four main forms of EU-English:
· words that don't exist in English, such as 'planification' and 'comitology';
· words that are used in English but in completely different contexts such as 'homogenise', 'mission' or 'agent';
· new technological terms that don’t exist in English, and
· misused prepositions and confusion of countable and uncountable nouns.
I realise how ‘native’ I have gone since I use, or at least accept, many of the examples he uses in bullet points two and three without blinking an eye.
While it makes for amusing reading, the use of ambiguous jargon makes it harder for citizens to understand what is being done in their name, or what they are being asked to do. This the more so as all ‘important’ official EU documents (don’t ask me how important is defined) are subsequently translated into twenty seven other languages with the potential for multiplying misunderstanding. One reviewer comments "This list is weirdly fascinating. It explains a lot about why EU documents read like some kind of Kafkaesque nightmare, where you're being commanded to do things that don't quite make any sense."
Yet this confusion and muddying of the waters may smooth the path of EU diplomacy. Herman van Rompuy, the EU president once sang the virtues of ‘asymmetric translation’: “the ambiguity and mugginess helps them (EU politicians) to make the kind of political compromises here that need to be made in a project like this – they allow leaders to agree to things that otherwise, if they were explained in plain English, would be political death for them at home”. A prime example of comitology I think. Well worth a read if you are a wordsmith who deals with EU institutions.