The Rules of Procedure of the two Courts of the European Union reflect the rules for language use laid down in Council Regulation (EEC) No 1/58 determining the languages to be used by the European Union. All other rules on language use apply mutatis mutandis to proceedings before the Courts of the European Union.
The language of the case is determined for each action before the Courts of the European Union. The language of the case is one of the 24 official languages. In preliminary ruling proceedings, the language is always that used by the national court or tribunal which made the reference. In direct actions, applicants may choose the language of the case. They are not bound by their own nationality or by that of their lawyer. However, where the defendant is a Member State the language of the case is the language, or one of the languages, of that State. Once the language of the case has been determined, it must be used throughout the proceedings, both in the written and in the oral procedure. The choice of the language to be used is binding not only on the parties, but also on any third parties who may be granted leave to intervene.
The Court needs a common language in which to conduct deliberations. That language is, by custom, French. Thus, all documents lodged by the parties in the language of the case are translated into French as part of the internal working file. However, documents exchanged between the registries and parties are in the language of the case. This assumes particular importance at the end of the proceedings, since the only authentic version of the judgment handed down by either the Court of Justice or the General Court is that which appears in the language of the case. The judgments of both the Court of Justice and the General Court are published in the European Court Reports, which appear in all the official languages.
Thus, throughout the proceedings, the Directorate-General for Multilingualism has a role to play in the communication between the parties and the EU judicature.
The Directorates for Legal Translation deal with the translation into French, from all the official languages of the European Union, of the documents lodged by the parties, and the subsequent translation into all languages, including, in particular, the language of the case, of the judgments of the Court of Justice and the General Court. However, Advocates General usually use their own language, and their Opinions are translated from the original text into the language of the case for the parties, and into all other languages for publication. Since references for preliminary rulings from national courts are notified immediately to all the Member States, they have to be translated into all the official languages too.
Given the importance of this role as an intermediary, the Court has recourse only to lawyers. The Directorates for Legal Translation – which work for both courts – are composed of lawyer-linguists who have a law degree or an equivalent professional qualification. Article 42 of the Rules of Procedure of the Court of Justice provides that the translation service is to be ‘staffed by experts with adequate legal training’.
In the course of the oral procedure, the Interpretation Directorate is responsible for communication between the parties and the judges. Simultaneous interpretation is provided at the hearings of the Courts of the European Union into as many languages as are needed.
The purpose of interpretation is oral communication. There can be no question of providing literal translation, if the very nature of the oral debate is to be respected. The interpreter's task is to convey the speaker's message faithfully in another language in real time.
In addition to having a perfect command of their working languages, the Court’s interpreters must have a thorough knowledge of the subject-matter of the hearing. It is thus very important for them to study the documents and evidence in the case-file of the proceedings. Interpreters – bound by absolute confidentiality – have full access to the case-file, in order to familiarise themselves with the relevant legal issues and terminology.
As French is the language of deliberation of the Courts of the European Union, some documents and evidence may not be available in other languages. This means that all interpreters working for the Court must have an excellent understanding of written French.