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What a Messerschmidt

Posted by Richard Monday, June 28, 2004

There is an intriguing letter in The Times today about the difficulties of ensuring accurate translation of legal texts into diverse languages.

The author, Professor Muir Hunter, who had worked on official translations for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, recalls that he had to work on the draft EEC bankruptcy convention, drafted in French, translated into German, Italian and Dutch, and then into English.

The result was so unsatisfactory that Prof. Hunter had to re-translate the text himself. The outcome was four master texts, each declared to be "authentic", in places markedly different in sense. "What will have happened to the EU constitution", Prof. Hunter asks, “after 20 or more teams of translators have been at work?”

The question is well put, as we have direct experience of the old joke from the First World War, when the message to "send reinforcements, we're going to advance", got corrupted through multiple transmissions, to arrive at HQ – to the puzzlement of the recipients - as "send 3/4d, we're going to a dance".

In September 2001, Jeffrey Titford, then one of the two UKIP MEPs, gave a speech in the European Parliament on the European Aviation Safety Agency.

The report, produced by rapporteur Ingo Schmitt, could best be described as a "dog's dinner", which left Jeffrey to conclude his speech with the comment, "What a mess Herr Schmitt". This was duly recorded in the English text as "What a Messerschmidt" (sic). God knows what the Germans made of it.