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Translating Institutions and the EU

Updated on April 11, 2018

There do not seem to be many books devoted to the subject of European Union institutional translation, although this is made up with a surfeit of articles upon the subject. I have dozens at least upon my computer! This lack of books is compounded by it seeming to be the case that many of the books which do exist are essentially collections of articles. Many of these are upon broader issues related to translation, upon political issues in the EU, upon ideas for reform and current topics for translation. There are very few traditional books, written by a single author, dedicated to exploring and expounding a cohesive thesis upon European translation and translators. It is this which makes Translating Institutions; An Ethnographic Study of EU Translation by Kaisa Koskinen, a sociology study of the Finnish translation unit in the Directorate-General for Translation, the translation service of the European Commission, so vitally important. It gives a useful window into the lives, principles, and actions of Finnish translators and does a lot to provide for this neglected subject.

Finns in Luxembourg : not the most populous grouping, but Finnish translators in the European Union have to come from somewhere...
Finns in Luxembourg : not the most populous grouping, but Finnish translators in the European Union have to come from somewhere...

Chapter 1, "Introduction", lays out the research philosophy of the book, related to the so-called the nexus model, where the focus is upon observing the context and situationality of what is being studied to enable an understanding of connections and identities. It lays out what it wishes to do, which is examine the identity and the effects of the Luxembourg-based Finnish translators in the European Commission upon translation, the reasons for the selection of the Finnish case, its broader relevance, and some associated issues. What was studied to produce this research - a microhistory of a single text translated by the Luxembourg Finnish translation section. Furthermore an overview of the book's organization is provided.

Part I

Part I, Theory and Methadology, starts with Chapter 2, Translating Institutions and Institutional Translations, spends quite an extensive amount of time defining what the author means in using the term institution. The author has a very broad view of institutions, including under that title social institutions such as customs - the giving of gifts for example - which merit being analyzed, a traditional focus of sociology. These social institutions produce norms which then proceed to dictate our actions, such as in this case translation. Translation is according to her, something which is deeply affected by its depiction and norms surrounding it, such as in its marginalization in literary criticism, publishing, and copyright. Government translation is an example of institutional translation, translation done for the institution, and the author felt that she had been the most confined and limited when translating for the European Union. Institutional translation is not translating for the institution, but instead translating the institution.Some of the instances of this playing out in various countries qnd organizations is displayed and the increasing relevance of this, especially in the Finnish case where increasing multi-lingualism and the special nature of Finland and the Finnish language help make Finland into an excellent example of language positionality in the world. There the author describes factors impacting translating in Finland and how translators are trained,

Chapter 3, Ethnographic Approach to Institutional Translation, is devoted to explaining and justifying the author's choice of an ethnographical approach, and defining what an ethnographic approach means in this case - ethnography not as a study of far off and foreign peoples and cultures but as a holistic and personal study of groups closer to home. She goes on to define the way win which she intends to use culture for studying the EU, and the EU's cultural status - whether it has a culture of its own in its institutions, which the author believes to be the case, as a nexus of linkages. This stands at the center of affinities and identities. Other discussions include the status of an observer and efforts to ensure ethical research.

Focus groups are the principal research tool used by the other other than textual analysis.
Focus groups are the principal research tool used by the other other than textual analysis.

Part II

Part II, Translation in the European Commission, thus commences with Chapter 4, "Language Work in the European Commission". This chapter talks about the underpinnings of the EU's multi-lingualism structure and its manifestation in the EU, plus how research has dealt with the topic, and what the objectives and guidelines are in regards to translation work. It then explains the structure of EU translation institutions, and moves into a physical description of the working environment of the Directorate-General for Translation. We first meet our Finnish grouping here, perhaps oddly enough in a discussion about how the Finns were the first one to change their office furnishing from carpeting to linoleum. The composition, work régimes, and social world of the workers in the Finnish unit are described, one of isolation from Luxembourg and continued connection to Finland.

Chapter 5, "Institutional Identifications", is devoted to how the Finns feel in their identity - are they the first New Europeans, a transformed group of multi-cultural and pan-European citizens? The author used focus groups to study this and explains her choice and usage of this approach and of course associated ethical dilemnas, grounding it appropriately in research. What is revealed is an ambivalent identity, where although the translators are designated as officials like any other, they believe themselves to be apart from, and perhaps lower than, regular officials. Their social histories are shown, and their rankings of what they think to be important in their work listed. But the most useful information is their perspective on what their objectives are in such regards, rather than just listing it in a list; it shows a community devoted to communication with their target audience; but handicapped by limitations and rules on them and lack of knowledge. While they are almost a caste apart in Luxembourg, having maintained their own identities and living in a very Finnish community, their social life and outlook has nevertheless been altered by their time in the EU's capitol, making them less reclusive, more social and friendly.

The Finnish translation unit is distinctly Finnish and even insular in their life, but also thoroughly international in their mission and outlook. An intriguing contrast and a good depiction of the difficulties of a European identity.
The Finnish translation unit is distinctly Finnish and even insular in their life, but also thoroughly international in their mission and outlook. An intriguing contrast and a good depiction of the difficulties of a European identity.

Part III

Chapter 6, "Social study of texts", and the first chapter of Part III, "Institutional Text Production", concerns itself with the analysis of texts. This starts with outlining the drafting process, which places the institution of the European Commission at the center and tends to produce overly specialized and difficult to understand texts. A text whichad been tranalsted into Finnish was then analyzed, particularly errors and reasons behind these. Some were simple translation errors, but others resulted from the need to strictly translate certain words and which produced a different sense for the text, reducing the level of clarity and understanding.

Chapter 7, "Net Results", is as the title proclaims a response to questions the author raised. Do Finnish translators have their own identity or a European one? In fact, it seems more that they have achieved a cultural niche within the European Commission, neither truly part of it nor separate, and effectively marginalized. Although translators were constantly centered upon readability in their texts, they are marginalized and norms and pragmatism effectively prevents this from being carried out. Some proposals and quotations of what the role of a European translator should be are supplied, and the author provides a final reflection on ethics and her own involvement.


When starting to read this book, I had found the initial third of it rather useless. 60 pages devoted to theoretical background, to clarifying and specifying the research, defining terms, and talking about the research - while this is good in limited quantities, the sheer length of all of this seemed to start to qualify it to be used for a book in of its own right! Compounding this I found much of what the author discussed concerning theoretical areas to be convoluted, hazy, and difficult to understand; perhaps this was merely my feeble mind, but regardless I do honestly think that much of this was unnecessary and could have been much reduced without in any way harming the later content of the book. After having finished this section, I was prepared to pan the book, which seemed to offer little substance and too much theory for what it was ostensibly aiming to portray.

Thankfully, this did not turn out to be the case, and the actual research as displayed in Part II, Translation in the European Commission, turned out to be quite relevant and fascinating. There was a large corpus of facts and information, plenty of quotes and other primary sources, strong analysis of them, and a holistic understanding of how they all fit together. As mentioned I find it to be quite unfortunate that there are so few books which attempt to deal with the topics of translators and their actual experiences in the European Union, and this book does quite a lot to counter this : we get a very good feel for the identity, both in quantitative and qualitative terms, of the Finns in the Directorate-General for Translation. In addition it reveals much of their thoughts, opinions, and beliefs, and in this way in their oral expressions : it can be glimpsed elsewhere, but the focus groups which the author did provide a more much direct, and despite their roughness, elegant way to phrase the ideals of the translators. The author's writing style flows well, such as the description of the Jean Monnet translation building, and it ties all of these concepts excellently into broader themes.

The Jean-Monnet building where translators worked, now a function shifted elsewhere.
The Jean-Monnet building where translators worked, now a function shifted elsewhere.

There are admittedly in my opinion, quite a few problems associated : there is a lack of historical context : was it always like this with these issues in the European translating units? Some more direct discussions of the problems faced by the translators, as said by themselves, would have been welcome. There is a lack of comparative analysis : is the Finnish section unique within the Directorate-General for translation, or a special case : the author does write about the general identity of translators, but there isn't nearly as much research linking this to the Finns. There is a lack of discussion of changes and problems facing translators, like English's hegemony and their relationship to it, and given how much it is mentioned elsewhere that terminology is a tremendous difficulty for translators in the European Union, more than the brief few pages on it would have been nice. Any political actions or feelings on part of the translators would have done more to give a more full picture of them : the translators feel like inanimate objects acted upon by forces beyond their power, and while they do seem marginalized, I am sure that there is additional information to the story. The relationship to technology is hinted at but doesn't receive as much attention as I think it merits.

This is a litany of errors, but there seems to be few volumes that match this book in giving a depiction of work inside the Directorate-General for Translation, and even fewer that provide its variety of analyses and conclusions. Its a shame that it isn't a longer book, or perhaps that it wasn't more focused on the topic : while I am not expert in ethnography, the vast amount of secondary and background material read as unnecessary to me. The confluence of advantages and the window that it brings nevertheless makes it a strong volume that would be useful for anybody studying translation issues, translation in the European Union, ethnography and its research methods (as mentioned quite often the author provides an extremely extensive grounding for her work), elements of the workings of the European Commission, and institutional analyses. It isn't perfect, but it is invaluable.

4 stars for Translating Institutions


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      Mary Norton 10 days ago from Ontario, Canada

      I had a chance to participate in conferences and meetings where simultaneous translations take place and I always admired the translators but the insight in this book that intrigued me is the emergence of the need to study culture because of this translation. It is also intriguing that the Finnish though insular are also international in their mission. You just piqued my interest to read this book.