Multilingualism in the European Union

Last week, I wrote about the European Union (EU) as a legal melting pot. Today, I would like to focus on the legal language diversity within the EU. Currently, there are  24 official working languages in the EU. This means that legal texts and decisions have to always be translated into the 24 languages. All translations are considered equal.

The issue is that legal languages (like legal cultures) are different. It is incredibly difficult – if not impossible – to achieve the same meaning throughout all translations. Sometimes languages do not share the same nuances, sometimes a legal term does simply not exist. The question is how to deal with this kind of multilingualism. Three kinds of solutions come to mind: (1) creating special terminology for EU law, (2) choosing the best translation when a dispute arises between different versions of a text, or (3) looking for the original meaning of a text.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has in its decisions insisted on maintaining multilingualism and opted for an originalist approach (option 3). Thus, in North Kerry Milk Products Ltd. v Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries, the ECJ refused to choose a specific translation and resolved the issue of diverging translations of a regulation by consulting texts and legislation surrounding the contested regulation. Subsequently, the ECJ resorted to interpreting different language versions of a text by “reference to the purpose and general scheme of the rules of which it forms a part” (Regina v Pierre Bouchereau).

Keeping up multilingualism in the EU comes at a price. The EU Commission has one of the largest translation services worldwide. Other institutions, including the ECJ, employ a large number of lawyer-linguists as well. Given such overhead the question arises whether the EU should adapt a more pragmatic approach and opt for an official language or a specific EU metalanguage. So far this have only been tentative suggestions by the Commission.


  • Case 80-76 North Kerry Milk Products Ltd. v Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries [1977] ECR 425.
  • Case 30-77 Regina v Pierre Bouchereau [1977] ECR 1999.
  • Karen McAuliffe, Enlargement at the Court of Justice: Law, Language and Translation, 14 European L J 806-818 (2008).
  • Tadas Klimas and Jurate Vaiciukaite, Interpretation of European Multilingual Law, 3 Int’l J Baltic L 1-13 (2005).