The European Union has 24 official languages, and EU legislation is published in all of them. How does the court resolve inconsistencies in interpretation that might arise because of mistranslations, or because of different connotations that a word might have in one language but not another?

  • Many Europeans are bilingual (or multilingual). Bilingual people who are well-versed in law can ensure an accurate and precise translation of legislation from French/English to the country's official language. That being said, I am not knowledgeable of what actual mechanisms the EU has in place. It will be interesting to know whether there are any such mechanisms. Jan 22 '19 at 19:44
  • 1
    @IñakiViggers The working languages apparently also include German. But a Latvian citizen is entitled to cite the European legislation in Latvian and for it to have the same effect that it has for an Italian citizen who cites it in Italian, and Latvian and Italian parliamentarians are entitled to read and debate the legislation in Latvian and Italian, respectively. As to the accuracy of translations, even the best translators make mistakes, even if they are natively bilingual, and there remains the question of a word's having differing shades of meaning in different languages.
    – phoog
    Jan 22 '19 at 19:51
  • 1
    No doubt. But I figure that mistakes in debate/live translations are rather inconsequential (insofar as these are deemed inevitable in an interactive, parliamentary setting) and subject to lesser scrutiny than legislative drafts and court briefs. The emphasis on revising EU legal texts is reflected in this Notice of Open Competitions. If I recall correctly, court hearings in the EU tribunal(s) (located in Luxembourg?) are in French. Jan 22 '19 at 20:04
  • @IñakiViggers in the Notice of Open Competition I noticed: "The original versions of the documents handled by the services concerned are drafted almost entirely in English and are used as a basis for legal-linguistic revision in the other languages." Does that answer the question?
    – ostergaard
    Jan 23 '19 at 20:47
  • @ostergaard it would answer the question if the Court of Justice took that fact into consideration when interpreting legislation. This question is more about how the court interprets legislation than it is about the process of producing it.
    – phoog
    Jan 23 '19 at 21:03

See this working paper by Silvia Ferreri for an excellent write-up of this issue.

The key point is that because each linguistic version of legislation is equally authentic, none can be taken as the authentic version. The court then resolves this by applying two principles: comparing the linguistic versions and giving deference to legislative intent. This is necessarily a case-by-case analysis.

The paper calls attention to Case C‑445/09 arising from the Netherlands, where 9 different linguistic versions are compared and shows that the straightforward Dutch reading of the legislation in question isn't compatible with the other linguistic versions or legislative intent. In paragraph 25, the decision also contains a concise summary of the general principle of interpreting laws in multiple languages:

According to settled case-law, the need for uniform application and, accordingly, for uniform interpretation of an EU measure makes it impossible to consider one version of the text in isolation, but requires that it be interpreted on the basis of both the real intention of its author and the aim which the latter seeks to achieve, in the light, in particular, of the versions in all languages (see, inter alia, Case 29/69 Stauder [1969] ECR 419, paragraph 3; Joined Cases C‑261/08 and C‑348/08 Zurita García and Choque Cabrera [2009] ECR I‑10143, paragraph 54; and Case C‑473/08 Eulitz [2010] ECR I‑0000, paragraph 22).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.