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Speaking Language to Law: The Case of Europe

  • Simone Glanert (a1)


No legal integration project can circumvent the matter of language. Yet, lawyers advocating one form or other of Europeanisation of law, apparently basing themselves on the unexamined view that everything is adequately translatable, do not seem prepared to address linguistic issues. But a move beyond law's disciplinary barriers – in particular, a foray into translation studies (or ‘translatology’) – compels one to challenge the effectivity of the uniformisation agenda. First, it shows that the inherently local character of language resists the establishment of uniform law. Second, it demonstrates that no uniform law, irrespective of the language in which it is written, can account for local legal experience. Both claims suggest that language simply cannot be made subservient to the lawyer's agenda and that the assumption that it can be ignored is mistaken.



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1. Pirandello, L Six Characters in Search of an Author [J Linstrum (transl)] (London: Methuen, 1979) p 15 [1921] (I have modified the translation).

2. Heidegger, M The Way to Language’ in M Heidegger On the Way to Language [PD Hertz (transl)] (New York: Harper & Row, 1971) p 134 [1959] (original emphasis).

3. See Wurmnest, W Common Core, Grundregeln, Kodifikationsentwürfe, Acquis-Grundsätze – Ansätze internationaler Wissenschaftlergruppen zur Privatrechtsvereinheitlichung in Europa’ (2003) Zeitschrift für Europäisches Privatrecht 714 (hereinafter ZEuP).

4. See generally Vogenhauer, S and Weatherill, S (eds) The Harmonisation of European Contract Law (Oxford: Hart, 2006); .

5. See Von Bar, C and Lando, O Communication on European Contract Law: Joint Response of the Commission on European Contract Law and the Study Group on a European Civil Code’ (2002) 10 European Review of Private Law 183 (hereinafter ERPL).

6. See Resolution [of the European Parliament] on Action to Bring into Line the Private Law of the Member States, [1989] OJ C158/400 (26 May 1989); Resolution [of the European Parliament] on the Harmonization of Certain Sectors of the Private Law of the Member States, [1984] OJ C205/518 (6 May 1994); Resolution [of the European Parliament] on the Approximation of the Civil and Commercial Law of the Member States, [2002] OJ C140E/538 (15 November 2001).

7. Communication [from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council] on a More Coherent European Contract Law – An Action Plan, [2003] OJ C63/1 (12 February 2003) §§ 59–68.

8. See, for example, Weatherill, S Reflections on the Ec's Competence to Develop a “European Contract Law”’ (2005) 13 ERPL 405.

9. Legrand, P Le droit comparé (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2nd edn, 2006) p 3.

10. For a critical approach, see Legrand, P Antivonbar’ (2006) 1 Journal of Comparative Law 13; (hereinafter Am J Comp L);

11. But see Pozzo, B and Jacometti, V (eds) Multilingualism and the Harmonisation of European Law (The Hague: Kluwer, 2006); ; .

12. G Ajani and P Rossi ‘Multilingualism and the Coherence of European Private Law’ in Pozzo and Jacometti, above n 11, p 81 (emphasis omitted).

13. See Von Bar, CLe groupe d'études sur un code civil européen’ (2001) Revue internationale de droit comparé 127 at 128 (hereinafter RIDC).

14. Berman, A La traduction de la lettre ou l’auberge du lointain (Paris: Le Seuil, 1999) p 19.

15. For a presentation of some of the principal difficulties raised by mono-disciplinary research, see Thompson Klein, J Crossing Boundaries: Knowledge, Disciplinarities, and Interdisciplinarities (Charlottesville VA: University Press of Virginia, 1996); .

16. See von Bar and Lando, above n 5, at 236–7. See generally Pozzo, B Harmonisation of European Contract Law and the Need of Creating a Common Terminology’ (2003) 11 ERPL 754.

17. See Derrida, J Monolingualism of the Other [P Mensah (transl)] (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1998) p 39.

18. Instead of using ‘set-off’, deemed too evocative of the common law, Art 1671 of the Civil Code of Quebec thus resorts to ‘compensation’ (mimicking the French ‘compensation’), lending to this word a meaning concerning the extinction of debt that it does not habitually carry.

19. von Bar, above n 13, at 129.

20. See Terral, FL'empreinte culturelle des termes juridiques’ (2004) 49 Meta 876 at 878.

21. For a full statement of the ‘Principles’, see Lando, O and Beale, H Principles of European Contract Law vols I and II (The Hague: Kluwer, 2000); .

22. On this particular point, see Teubner, G Legal Irritants: Good Faith in British Law or How Unifying Law Ends up in New Divergences’ (1998) 61 MLR 11.

23. Walford v Miles [1992] 2 AC 128 (HL) at 138 (Lord Ackner).

24. For example, see Director General of Fair Trading v First National Bank plc[2002] 1 AC 481 (HL) at 494 (Lord Bingham), where ‘good faith’ is said to mean ‘fair and open dealing’. On the ‘distinctively English and untranslatable’ character of the word ‘fair’, see Wierzbicka, A English (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) pp 14167. For an analogous claim emphasising the ‘idiomatic’ character of ‘fairness’ with specific reference to law, see

25. Legrand, P Le droit comparé (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1st edn, 1999) pp 1045.

26. For the French version of the ‘Principles’, see Lando, O (ed) Principes du droit européen des contrats [G Rouhette et al (transl)] (Paris: Société de législation comparée, 2003).

27. The principle of linguistic relativity, generally attributed to the US anthropologist Edward Sapir and his disciple Benjamin Lee Whorf, stems from the linguistic theses of Wilhelm von Humboldt. See Whorf, BL Language Thought, and Reality (JB Caroll (ed)) (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1956); [1836]. Over the last years, the interest in linguistic relativism has increased within linguistics and cognitive psychology. See .

28. But for an argument in this sense, see Lequette, Y Quelques remarques à propos du projet de code civil européen de M. von Bar’ (2002) Dalloz, Chron, 2202 at 2208–9.

29. See von Bar and Lando, above n 5, at 221.

30. von Bar, above n 13, at 136 (my emphasis).

31. See Sarcevic, S New Approach to Legal Translation (The Hague: Kluwer, 1997) p 72.

32. See Steiner, G After Babel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3rd edn, 1998) pp 2934.

33. See Gadamer, H-G Truth and Method [J Weinsheimer and DG Marshall (transl)] (London: Sheed & Ward, 2nd edn, 1989)[1960].

34. Ricœur, P Philosophie de la volonté vol I (Paris: Aubier, 1950) p 165.

35. G Rouhette et al ‘Note sur la version française’ in Lando, above n 26, p 48.

36. See Gadamer, above n 33, pp 265–71 and 291–300. A critical analysis of Gadamer's idea of ‘pre-understanding’ is offered by Kögler, H-H The Power of Dialogue [P Hendrickson (transl)] (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1996) pp 19110.

37. Heidegger, M Der Satz vom Grund (Stuttgart: Neske, 1997) p 161 [1957].

38. Gadamer, above n 33, p 297 (original emphasis) (I have modified the translation).

39. See S Sarcevic ‘Problems of Interpretation in an Enlarged European Union’ in Sacco, above n 11, p 239.

40. J-C Gémar ‘L'interprétation du texte juridique ou le dilemme du traducteur’ in Sacco, above n 11, p 104. The same question arises in the context of so-called ‘legal transplants’. See P Legrand ‘Issues in the Translatability of Law’ in Bermann, S and Wood, M (eds) Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005) pp 3050.

41. von Bar and Lando, above n 5, at 225.

42. Ibid, at 192.

43. Given the fact that the debates which take place within the working groups influence the choice of rules and principles for a uniform private law, the following questions arise: Who are the translators? Do all those who participate in the uniformisation process speak sufficiently and equally well the English language and the English legal language? Is the German, French, Italian, Spanish or Dutch lawyer aware of the cultural specificity of the English (legal) terms, which can be of British, US or Australian origin, and which, on account of English being the working language, she must use in order to explain a specific aspect of her own legal culture?

44. See Rouhette et al ‘Note sur la version française’ in Lando, above n 26, p 48.

45. See Von Bar, CDes principes à la codification: perspectives d'avenir pour le droit privé européen’ (2002) 33 Les Annonces de la Seine 4.

46. M Laffitte ‘Quelques hypothèses sur la place du français et de l'anglais dans le monde actuel…’ in Chartier, R and Corsi, P (eds) Sciences et langues en Europe (Paris: Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, 1996) p 198.

47. See Truchot, C Languages and Supranationality in Europe: The Linguistic Influence of the European Union’ in Maurais, J and Morris, MA (eds) Languages in a Globalising World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) pp 1005. The predominance of the English language is particularly criticised by French lawyers. See

48. Heidegger, M Überlieferte Sprache und technische Sprache (H Heidegger (ed)) (Saint Gallen: Erker, 1989) p 27.

49. Kasirer, N Lex-icographie mercatoria ’ (1999) 47 Am J Comp L 653 at 659.

50. See W Benjamin ‘The Task of the Translator’ in Benjamin, W Selected Writings (M Bullock and MW Jennings (eds)) [H Zohn (transl)] vol I (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1996) pp 25363 [1923].

51. See Ortega y Gasset, J Miseria y esplendor de la traducción’ in Obras completas vol V (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1983) p 436 [1937].

52. Eco, U Experiences in Translation [A McEwen (transl)] (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001) pp 489.

53. Ortega y Gasset, J La reviviscencia de los cuadros’ in Obras completas vol III (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1983) p 439 [1946].

54. Schleiermacher, F Ueber die verschiedenen Methoden des Uebersezens’ in Friedrich Schleiermacher's sämmtliche Werke vol III/2 (Berlin: Reimer, 1838) p 239 (original emphasis).

55. Heidegger, M Heraklit in Gesamtausgabe vol LV (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1994) p 44 [1979].

56. Idem, ‘Prologue [to Qu’est-ce que la métaphysique?]’ in Questions I et II [H Corbin (trans)] (Paris: Gallimard, 1968) p 10 [1938].

57. Hoffman, E Lost in Translation (London: Minerva, 1991) p 272.

58. Ibid, p 273.

59. Derrida, JFidélitéà plus d'un’ (1998) 13 Cahiers Intersignes 223.

60. Von Bar, C From Principles to Codification: Prospects for European Private Law’ (2002) 379 Columbia Journal of European Law 379.

61. For a historical synthesis of the ‘invisible’ role that is generally attributed to the translator, see Venuti, L The Translator's Invisibility (London: Routledge, 1995).

62. See Nord, C Translating as a Purposeful Activity (Manchester: St Jerome, 1997) pp 1238.

63. See Gémar, J-C Traduire ou l’art d’interpréter vol II (Sainte-Foy, Quebec: Presses de l’Université du Québec, 1995) p 158.

64. See Thompson Klein, J Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory, Practice (Detroit MI: Wayne State University Press, 1990) p 105.

* Early formulations of this argument were presented at the Université de Montréal (7–9 April 2005), at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in the Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation, Monterey, CA (9–11 September 2005) and at Cornell Law School (16 November 2006). Versions of the paper were subsequently published for French and German readerships. I am most grateful to Pierre Legrand for his generous assistance as I prepared this text for publication and to Geoffrey Samuel for his valuable input. Unless otherwise indicated, translations are mine.

Speaking Language to Law: The Case of Europe

  • Simone Glanert (a1)


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