May 03, 2005

Legalese Translation of the European Constitution

I've been looking at different translations of the text proposing a constitution for the European Union, and I've noticed a discrepency.

I first noticed this small difference between the English and French versions. Compare:

Article II-63

Right to the integrity of the person

1. Everyone has the right to respect for his or her physical and mental integrity.

Article II-63

Droit à l'intégrité de la personne

1. Toute personne a droit à son intégrité physique et mentale.

I've emphasised the key terms respect and integrity (if they exist).

It seems to me that, in French, you get the right to physical integrity, while in English, you get the right to the respect for your physical integrity. I wonder why the difference? Is this kind of stuff going to pose problems if we adopt the Treaty?

Then I asked Arnold what it said in the Dutch:

Artikel II-63

Het recht op menselijke integriteit

1. Eenieder heeft recht op lichamelijke en geestelijke integriteit.

As I somewhat expected, it made English the odd-one-out. The Dutch version, like the French, protects integrity, not respect for integrity. So what happens when cases involving a person's physical or mental integrity go to European court? Which text gets applied? I would immediately object that the case's "home country" defines the language of the constitution used to make the ruling, because the point of the European court is that it is neutral to the home country. In that sense, though, we have a conflict of linguistic precedence: which constitution is the real one?

Then I checked the Polish:

Artykuł II-63

Prawo do integralnosci człowieka

1. Kaźdy ma prawo do poszanowania swej integralnosci fizycznej i psychicznej.

I'm surprised. Again, I've emphasised the terms repect and integrity. The Polish version follows the English version. Among four languages now, we have a two-two tie. This precludes us from deciding that, in the case of a conflict in an article among the different versions of the constitution, the most-frequent version wins. Yes, the EU may be at 25 nations now, but there are three candidates and petitioners, so we may conceivably have an even number of states at any time. Anyway, is a modal average a legal way to decide court cases?

Okay, perhaps I can make my way through a few more languages. All languages share morphemes and cognates, so I'm going to look at the same phrase in all the constitution texts, eliminate those words I recognise, and see if there are enough morphemes left over to signify "respect", or not.

How about Spanish:

1. Toda persona tiene derecho a su integridad física y psíquica.

The word "respect" does not appear here. Literally, it seems to say "Every person has right to his/her integrity, physical and mental." So it's the "integrity" case.


1. Ogni persona ha diritto alla propria integrità fisica e psichica.

Again, the "respect" is missing. Are all the Romance languages in agreement?

Here's the Portuguese:

1. Todas as pessoas têm direito ao respeito pela sua integridade física e mental.

Nope. There goes the Romance theory. Maybe it goes by time zone???

Let's try the German:

(1) Jeder Mensch hat das Recht auf körperliche und geistige Unversehrtheit.

I recognise a few words, and there don't seem to be enough left to fit the term "respect for". The time zone theory is holding.

A bit more fun now. Czech:

1. Každý má právo na to, aby byla respektována jeho fyzická a duševní nedotknutelnost.

Not surprising. It matches the Polish. It's the "respect" case.

Let's go nuts. Hungarian:

(1) Mindenkinek joga van a testi és szellemi sérthetetlenséghez.

Unless the word "sérthetetlenséghez" contains both the notions "respect for" and "integrity", I think this is the "integrity" case. Time zone theory out the window.

(In any case, the time-zone theory, while tongue-in-cheek, is erroneous, because it connects languages to nations. This is faulty logic because there are multiple languages in each nation, and there are multiple nations for a given language. The assumption of a 1:1 correspondance would not be truly "European".)


1. Jokaisella on oikeus ruumiilliseen ja henkiseen koskemattomuuteen.

I'm guessing that the word "koskemattomuuteen" is the key. Does it mean "integrity" or "respect for integrity"?


1. Var och en har rätt till fysisk och mental integritet.

"Integrity" case.


1. Kiekvienas asmuo turi teise i fizine ir psichine nelieciamybe.

Not sure if "turi teise" contains "respect". Anyone?


I can't find an HTML version of the Greek that I can easily paste here. But it seems to have a word that could mean "respect for".


1. Igaühel on õigus kehalisele ja vaimsele puutumatusele.

The Uralic languages all have that mysterious long word at the end. Unless the Urals had a short suffix that meant "respect for", however, I think the Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian are all in the "integrity" category.

Clearly, this shows that, at least in Article II-63, the text of the proposed European Constitution is not in agreement in all languages. What's more, there are definitely two "branches" of the text. And Poland follows the Napoleonic Code, right? So it's not as if they should have preferred English legal definitions. Weird.

Indeed, this could get weird. I have a few personal comments.

  1. First, this is a linguistic, not a legal, exercise. Since I am not a lawyer, perhaps I am misunderstanding the definition of the term "respect" in legal English, and perhaps this term means precisely what it means when it does not appear in French, or Dutch. One could easily interpret the phrase "right to respect for integrity" as being equal to "right to integrity".
  2. Secondly, I have only examined one article. I only made the initial comparison because I was curious as to how French translates "his or her". It was a stupid question, but in looking for the answer, I found this more interesting difference. That means that, if I found a discrepency in the first article I looked at, there's a chance that there might be other discrepencies in other articles. (Although, with respect to my first point, there may be no discrepency at all.)
  3. Thirdly, I really hope this text gets voted in. I'm for the Yes side; I think the European Union is the greatest thing I've ever known humanity to create. And I certainly would be shaken if some self-interested No partisan accidentaly found this page and used it to prove the unsuitability of the proposed text. Maybe I shouldn't have posted this until 2006?


Anonymous said...

you are so European...

martin said...

I also have a lot of time on my hands???