Clarity breakfast, 8 October 2015.

The paper from this breakfast is now available.

Since 2004, most EU legislation has been drafted in English, and translated into 23 other languages. Only a few of the writers have English as their first language. Malachy Hargadon, an Editor and Clear Writing Campaign coordinator in the European Commission, explained the origins and progress of the campaign for clarity within the EU.

Some of the points that emerged from the talk and questions were:

  • One driver for change is the cost of translation: the harder a document is to translate, the longer it takes and the more it costs. Another is the pain caused by difficult documents is often felt by the translators. Thus initiatives for change have often come from and been supported by translators and lawyer linguists.
  • Other reasons to change. Although plain language, free from Eurojargon, can improve the EU’s image, that is not the main reason to promote it. A better reason is to improve understanding within the EU bodies and among citizens.
  • Factors inhibiting change include the need for compromise between different political interests, the number of contributors to many documents, and pressure of time.
  • Practical steps in the Clear Writing campaign currently include: a booklet and online resources including a helpline that offers a response within the hour, 30 minutes for each new joiner telling them about the available resource, and training for the people responsible for specific documents or groups of documents.
  • The readability statistics in Word’s spelling and grammar check are one guide to the clarity of EU documents. When editing, Malachy will aim to reduce the average sentence length to below 30 words, and to achieve a document readable by a 15-year old. (His own writing is normally readable by someone of 7 or 8, according to these scores.)
  • Cultural differences. It is true that some languages favour longer sentences than others, but the practical answer is to fix the original draft, which is in English at least 95% of the time. The EU’s guidance on clear writing is published in all EU languages and varies from one version to the next.

Thanks again to the European Commission for hosting this meeting in London.

Download Malachy’s presentation.