Rita Temmerman

On floating signifiers, indeterminacy and ambiguity. Culturally embedded understanding and European Union terminology.

According to Shuibhne (2008) the European multilingual policy amounts to little more than a ‘myth of equality’ among languages. Most of the European information flow moves from an original draft in Euro-English to official translations into Euro-varieties of (in principle and at least) all the other 22 languages (Euro-Italian, Euro-Dutch, Euro-Maltese, Euro-Finnish, etc.). In Temmerman (2011) the dynamics of terminological understanding and the impact of terminology creation in a socio-cognitive multilingual reality was described and it was demonstrated that translators are at the basis of many coinages in the target languages that are given equivalent status to neologisms or new coinages in Euro-English. This means that translators are involved in what Sager (1990: 80) calls “secondary term formation”.

In the present contribution we discuss European secondary term formation in translations using recent insights in several disciplines. We start from the concept of “interlingual uncertainty”, which is –as Cao (2003) demonstrates–, a characteristic of all bilingual and multilingual legal texts. Then we go into the need for balance between precision and vagueness, a requirement for all legal documents. On one hand a legal text has to be maximally determinate and precise, on the other hand the text has to cover every relevant situation (Bhatia et al. 2005) and therefore some vagueness is essential. Yet vagueness may cause problems because of the principle of “equal authenticity” as explained by Schilling (2010) and Derlén (2009 & forthcoming). Europe pledges allegiance to the protection of legitimate expectations and to the non-discrimination principle. The mix of the EU’s equal authenticity principle, conceptual divergence (Prechal and Van Roermund 2008), cultural embeddedness of terminology (Diki_Kidiri 2008;  Kocbek 2008), and the fallibility of translators can cause serious problems. It is quite common that equally authentic language versions of a Community law have different meanings if taken on their own. Yet a citizen has every reason and the right to trust his or her own language version.

We will start from examples of the fact that the interpretation of a term may depend on several contextual factors, regardless of the fact that the rule of law forms part of our shared European cultural experience. When translating European texts, translators should have awareness of these factors in order to achieve optimal quality in secondary term formation. Insights from cultural terminology (Diki-Kidiri 2008) may benefit the quality of secondary term formation.

We will go into discussion with the audience on how to understand and represent floating signifiers, indeterminacy and ambiguity in cognitive and communicative situations that are part of the process of building the EU.

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