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Joanna Impey, BrusselsSeptember 18, 2012

The European Union can seem impenetrable to outsiders. But in the past few years, the EU has taken a number of active steps to improve transparency. They’ve started by tackling the issue of jargon-heavy language.

Image: bilderbox.de

There are 23 official languages of the European Union. But due to time and budgetary constraints, only official documents are translated into every language. For the most part, English has become the main day-to-day language of communication for the tens of thousands of civil servants working in Brussels.

For Paul Strickland, head of editing at the European Commission’s translation department, that poses a challenge.

"More and more documents in the Commission are being drafted in English by people for whom English is not their mother tongue," Strickland explains. "And this is the number one source of the Commission's communication issues."

Keep it short and simple

Strickland sees many documents that are written in a kind of "international English," and they can be hard to digest. Take this example of how not to do it:

Paul Strickland and Fiona Harris, DG Translation, European Commission. Photo: Joanna Impey, DW
Strickland and his team launched the campaign two years agoImage: Joanna Impey

"The intention of the Commission is the reinforcement of the monitoring of the development of these policies and thus the assurance of the continuation of the agreed strategies by the Member States."

That’s the sort of jargon that Paul Strickland wants to get rid of. It's taken from the Commission's own guide to clear writing. Two years ago, Strickland's department launched an internal campaign to encourage staff to write better. The aim is to produce shorter, simpler documents that contain less jargon and are more accessible to readers.

Writing in a foreign language

The clear writing campaign is especially relevant for staff whose mother tongue is not English. Anita Ryczan is from Poland. She recently starting working at the European Commission and often has to write reports and press releases in English. She attended one of the clear writing courses this summer and says it made her think about the role of language in her everyday work:

Anita Ryczan. Photo: Joanna Impey, DW
Anita Ryczan has attended one of the clear writing coursesImage: Joanna Impey

"If we work with the documents that are very technical, very quickly I think we can also start using this language without actually realizing that we are using these technical words," she said.

Getting the message out

It’s all very well to help staff communicate better with one another. But how far does this filter down to the 500 million citizens living in the European Union?

Chrissie Maher is a long-time campaigner for the use of plain English. She says more needs to be done to reach ordinary EU citizens.

"It's about time they realized there's a problem with the likes of me at the grass roots. They just don't take any notice. It's always token efforts," she said.

Tony Venables is director of the European Citizen Action Service, a non-profit organization that helps individuals and NGOs make their voice heard within the EU. He feels that the European Union, whilst it has improved internal communication, still does a poor job of communicating with the outside world.

Tony Venables, Director of the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS). Photo: Joanna Impe, DW
Tony Venables helps citizens make their voices heard in the EUImage: Joanna Impey

"There is a kind of infrastructure there with quite a lot of resources and people, but one can’t really say that it’s a very live infrastructure or necessarily a very coherent one in terms of the messages which are coming out," Venables told DW.

'Gradual progress'

Paul Strickland says changing an institutional culture won't happen overnight, but he’s confident that the clear writing campaign is making gradual progress.

The main message of the clear writing team is to Keep It Short and Simple (KISS). So hopefully now instead of reading sentences like this:

"There is a need for an intensification of community efforts aimed at the prevention of the pollution of the coastlines of Europe through the accidental spillage of oil."

We’ll be reading sentences like this:

"The EU must do more to protect coasts from oil spills."