Jaap Baaij awarded Research Prize for research on translations of EU regulations

26 May 2016

How does the EU ensure its regulations have the same meaning in each Member State, if they are written in 24 different languages? This was the subject of Jaap Baaij's research, for which he obtained his doctorate last year. For his groundbreaking doctoral thesis, he was awarded the Premium Erasmianum Foundation's Research Prize on 9 May.

Among other objectives, the EU seeks to standardise legislation in order to remove internal trade barriers between Member States, and to maintain its linguistic diversity. However, these objectives conflict because translations can never express the same idea in precisely the same way and can easily lead to differences in interpretation. Based on his research into translation theories and philosophies of language, Baaij has proposed strategies to resolve this conflict. 

Clear language

'The current translation method relies on two principles,' he says. 'On the one hand, the legislative texts have to be textually similar, and on the other, the language is kept as clear as possible.' As such, a freer approach is also permitted, as long as this improves the clarity and the style of the translation. However, analysis of judgements delivered by the European Court of Justice actually reveals that translations are more likely to be interpreted in the same way if they are grammatically similar.'

As a legal adviser, Baaij specialises in contract law; his research at the UvA was conducted under the supervision of the Centre for the Study of European Contract Law (CSECL). 'In terms of consumer law in particular, much has been done recent years to standardise the rules in the various Member States of the EU. The European legislature introduced the concept of the right of withdrawal, which under certain conditions gives consumers the power to withdraw from agreements without giving reasons. 

For these unique European legal concepts, he proposes coining new legal terms, i.e. 'legal neologisms', in all translations. 'Encountering an unknown word might at first seem strange, as well it should, as the concept is not of national origin. If existing words or terminology are used, differences of interpretation are more likely, due to the many meanings already associated with existing legal terms.'

Jaap Baaij defends his PhD thesis

English as the source language

In addition to more literal translations and neologisms, Baaij advocates the use of English as the source language: all translations would then be based on an original draft text in English. 'In practice, the preliminary versions of new regulations are mostly written in a single language,' he says. 'Negotiations are held in English and drafts are written in English. This is not necessarily British English, but rather the international English used by negotiation partners to communicate with each other.'

Baaij was of course delighted with the award, but was unable to attend the ceremony. 'My current research at Yale Law School also deals with contract law standardisation, this time at the international level and in relation to international commercial arbitration. This research does not focus specifically on multilingualism, but my comparative law research methodology does involve the philosophy of language. This Dissertation Prize is a splendid recognition of my research and will help draw attention to the relevance of language and multilingualism to law.'

From the jury report:

'The author of this doctoral thesis states his findings candidly and argues, quite controversially, that the EU must resolve to use English as the only authoritative language. This conclusion and its substantiation are based on observations from the philosophy of language, translation studies, comparative law, European public and private law and Baaij's own original qualitative and quantitative research, all of which he has brought together to formulate a powerful and cohesive argument. As such, his book is both innovative and cutting-edge. His arguments may be disputable, but their validity cannot be ignored. At once refreshing and non-conformist, Baaij's doctoral thesis has definitely earned the qualification of "Erasmian".'

Published by  Faculty of Law