EU preparations help reinvent language

  • 2002-12-19
  • J. Michael Lyons

A few days after the official pomp in Copenhagen that hailed the close of European Union negotiations for 10 candidate countries, Peteris Udris was back to work translating the names of exotic Mediterranean fish into Latvian.

Udris is the chief terminologist at the Latvian Translation and Terminology Center, the government agency responsible for the herculean task of translating about 85,000 pages of European Union legislation into Latvian.

Sitting at a computer and surrounded by stacks of French, English, German and Latvian dictionaries, Udris pours over technical EU documents on everything from agriculture to finance to fishing looking for words that have absolute no Latvian equivalent.

So far he and his colleagues have found and defined 50,700 such words.

"For 50 years our language lived behind the Iron Curtain, away from English," said Udris. "We did not have the need to translate words that we would never use."

Since it opened in 1997 the Latvian Translation and Terminology Center has translated 53,166 pages of EU documents and its 57 terminologists and translators have until 11 p.m. on April 30, 2004 - one hour before Latvia is scheduled to become an official EU member - to translate the rest.

Most of the pages have been translated in the last three years - 14,800 in 2000, 14,500 last year and just over 16,000 so far this year. The center has also translated 5,500 pages of NATO documents during that period.

Fishing and banking have proven to be the hardest industries to translate because neither was available to Latvians during the Soviet era.

Banking terms developed during Latvia's interwar independence were outdated as it began EU negotiations or, in many cases, just forgotten by most. Modern business simply did not exist in the Soviet Union.

Until recently, for example, there was no Latvian equivalent of "franchise," "entrepreneur" or "overdraft."

Fishing is particularly difficult. Not only do terminologists have to name fish from elsewhere in Europe that don't exist in Latvian waters, they have to come up with words for modern ship parts and commercial fishing terms.

"Most Latvians were not allowed to fish commercially in the Soviet days for fear that they might escape, so there are very few Latvian words for parts of ships," said Udris.

Fishermen were usually Russian and consequently most terms now used by Latvian fisherman are Russian or German, Udris said.

When terminologists find a word that has no Latvian counterpart they first consult the relevant government ministry to ensure there isn't a word that is commonly used among specialists but that isn't in general use.

Udris also sometimes consults his frayed, yellowing copies of the Latvian Conversation Dictionary, a multivolume encyclopedia of the Latvian language. Each volume was written and published individually beginning with "a" mostly during the pre-Soviet 1930s.

Often he'll find civil law terms that are suitable translations for English words, but which fell out of usage during communist rule. One problem, however, is that the set ends at "t," which was published just before the Soviet invasion. The Soviets halted publication of the remaining volumes, Udris said.

If there is no word, the terminologist devises one and adds it to a list of new words in a particular industry. The lists are discussed in special committees made up of linguists and industry experts who debate particularly difficult words. Then the words go to the government's terminology commission for final approval.

Hundreds of new words are approved each week.

"This whole process is enriching and modernizing the Latvian language," said Edvards Kusners, head of the European Integration Bureau.

Terminologists have resisted simply "Latvianizing" English words - just adding Latvian endings and stresses to English words.

"Every citizen should be able to review EU legislation in their own language," said center director Marta Jaksona.

But sometimes there's no choice. Udris and other terminologists struggled over the word "ombudsman." They decided the Latvian word for "mediator" wasn't quite right so they simply lobbed off "man" and created the word "ombuds," which fits nicely into the Latvian lexicon thanks to the "s" at the end.

"You could do that more often, but as soon as you put those words in front of a Latvian speaker they won't be understood," said Udris.

Often terminologists will consult German, French, Lithuanian and even Estonian dictionaries to determine how those languages handled translation of technical English words.

To translate technical documents as quickly as possible, the center employs a team of lawyers, physicists, chemists and others whose hobbies are languages. Most speak at least two other languages - usually French and English - but some speak several.

"We have one man here who learned 10 Romance languages simultaneously," Udris said.

Translators of that caliber are hard to find in Latvia, said center director Jaksona. And it is getting more difficult to keep them as the EU begins hiring the best translators from proposed member states to work in Brussels.

Two attorneys with the center that translated legal terms from French and English recently left to work for the EU, where their salaries will be "10 times higher," said Jaksona.

That makes the May 1 deadline for translating all the documents seem even closer, she added.

"We still have a lot to do and not much time left."