Tietoa kielipolitiikasta, Suomen kielistä ja suomen sukukielistä, kielenkäytön lajeista, nimistöstä, eri kielimuodoista, kielen- ja nimistönhuollosta.

A survey on the Finnish officials’ use of languages and their perception of the intelligibility of the EU texts

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1. Membership in EU put Finnish language in a new situation

The accession of Finland to the European Union was a watershed for the Finnish language, which suddenly became one of the languages of a major international community. It was now possible to speak Finnish at the meetings of this community, and its most important documents were also translated into Finnish. Such extensive use of the Finnish language in the international arena was unprecedented, as was the fact that Finnish officials were now involved in preparing Community statutes drafted in many languages.

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2. Why the survey was undertaken and how it was carried out

What is the status of the Finnish language in the multilingual legal drafting process? Does it also influence the language of documents? These questions have been investigated through two surveys: the first in 1998 and the second in summer 2006 (with further research in spring 2007). It should be noted that the findings of these surveys only reflect the views of the respondents, and cannot be generalised to describe the views or behaviour of all public servants.

The survey questionnaire was sent to liaison officials in Finnish government departments for forwarding to staff engaged in European Union functions. These surveys drew responses from 180 officials in 1998. There were 165 respondents in 2006–7. Most of the respondents participated as Finnish delegates in different working groups of the Council.

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3. Language use of the Finnish officials in the EU

Despite a gap of nearly a decade between these two surveys, the responses were strikingly similar. They indicate that Finnish officials usually negotiate in English at European Union meetings. This means that they generally work from the English language version of the draft statute and present their own views in English.

At the time of the first survey there were not enough interpreters who were able to interpret from Finnish, but a training program had already been set up. The studies may also reflect this change, insofar as more respondents to the survey of 2006–7 reported that they were also using Finnish at EU meetings.

There was, however, another change in the circumstances. After the Community enlargement of 2004 the arrangements for interpreting were changed to impose a quota on each language. Any Member State choosing to exceed this quota was liable for the additional cost of doing so.

In 2004 only Sweden of all Member States ordered less interpreting than Finland, but requests for such services in 2007 were higher than in the preceding year. Still, half of the respondents complained of not securing interpretation services as often as they would require, while the other half were satisfied with the level of service provided.

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4. Why the Finnish officials mostly choose English

The responding officials explain that they often read draft statutes in English, as these versions reach their desks more quickly. The Finnish translations come later, if at all, at this stage of legislative drafting. English is the most common foreign language understood in Finland and elsewhere, and has nowadays become the mutual communication medium of choice for most representatives of the Member States.

Most of the respondents also report that they prefer to read Community documents in English, as this is anyway the language used when these documents are discussed at meetings. Many of them also think that the English version is more accurate that the Finnish version. One consequence of this is that the Finnish translation can easily be downgraded to a minor role in legislative drafting. Finnish tends to be used only in certain situations, for example when reporting progress in EU to Parliament or to other stakeholders in Finland.

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5. What the respondents think of the EU texts

The survey highlights the drawbacks of the subordinate role of Finnish as a working language. Many respondents make it quite clear that the Finnish versions of documents seem alien and open to many objections. While just under half of the respondents think that Community documents drafted in foreign languages are obscure, over 80 per cent find the Finnish translations hard to read.

Complex sentence structures, alien phraseology and unknown terminology are most commonly identified as the features that make these documents obscure. On the plus side, however, nearly half of all respondents feel that the quality of documents has improved since they began using them. Half of them also thought that more freedom in translating would improve the Finnish versions.

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6. About cooperation between Finnish officials and translators

At least in theory, officials are in a position to influence the Finnish formulation of documents, as the Finnish negotiators review and revise translations prepared by Community institutions. As actively involved parties, these officials know what the document seeks to achieve, whereas the translator often only has the text to work with. This would therefore seem to offer scope for closer co-operation.

More than a quarter of the respondents felt that they had sufficient contact with translators, while a further quarter disagreed with this view. On the other hand, nearly half of the respondents could offer no opinion on this matter. Many comments suggested that there was too little time available for feedback and revision of texts, although this is naturally something that varies considerably by government department and at various times.

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7. More attention to the Finnish text version

What conclusions can we draw from these findings? Irrespective of the weight that we assign to the opinions expressed in these surveys, the responses highlight certain points that deserve closer attention.

In the first place, it is worth ensuring that officials work from draft statutes not only in English but also in their native language at the earliest possible stage, and that they are given sufficient time to do so, both by Finnish government departments and by the European Union. Such additional effort would be particularly worthwhile when drafting Regulations, which are in force in every Member State as such without national implementation. “Obviously the most important thing is what the text is in Finnish,” was the observation of one respondent whose views deserve greater prominence.

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8. More cooperation with the translators and more Finnish at the meetings

In the second place, care should be taken to facilitate contact between specialist officials and the translators who work at Community institutions, and to ensure that the latter can readily locate the right person at a ministry or elsewhere to answer their questions and the former the right person in the EU institutions to give feedback to. (A network for this end is currently being built.)

Thirdly, it is important to pay attention to the status of one’s native language as a working language: it is more natural to work from a document written in this language at a meeting where one can speak and listen to this language. Perhaps a more systematic distribution of interpretation services could make interpretation available at least at some stages of the legislative drafting process of every statute. As another respondent observed: “I think it’s important to improve the status of the Finnish language. This would make it much easier to lobby for Finnish interests.”

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