Recently, the Romanian Prime Minister sent a letter to President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, asking him to clarify “the de facto and de jure aspects” related to an older letter sent by EU Commission in 2012.

The matter itself is not relevant for the question, but some journalists and analysts saw a slight difference between the two issued official letters: the one in Romanian sent to the press is a little bit more aggressive than the one sent in English to the EU Commission (both version can be seen here).

The last paragraph is such an example (rough translation from Romanian):

From the above considerations and in view of the progress made by Romania in the field of justice, I underline once again, Mr President, that the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism should be lifted, to remove any doubt and to not affect the credibility of our relationship partnership.

The English version sounds a slightly different ("softer" according to some journalists):

From the above considerations and in view of the constant progress made by Romania in the field of justice, I would rightly stress again, Mr. President, that our country fulfills all the conditions for the lifting of the Copperation and Verification Mechanism, a measure which, once taken, will open new horizons and perspectives of our partnership.

Question: Is it something usual for a government to issue official letters that are slightly different when in different languages? I mean written in one of the country's official language vs. translated version meant for a foreign official.

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    Historic trivia: In 1870, an intentionally misleading translation started the Franco-Prussian war. But a good answer to this question should be based on more recent events.
    – Philipp
    Commented Mar 22, 2018 at 11:25
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    I was told once (did not verify it) that, in the EU accounting legislation, a phrase that in English was that "the accounting books must show an acurate view of the situation of the organization" was translated, in the languages of more "creative" countries as "the accounting books must show the acurate view of the situation of the organization"
    – SJuan76
    Commented Mar 22, 2018 at 11:30
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    bbc.com/culture/story/… has a few crunchy anecdotes. Commented Mar 22, 2018 at 11:45
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    The basic problem is that few if any languages have 1:1 mappings between them (otherwise machine translation would be easy). It's pretty much impossible to express any complex idea identically in two different languages.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 22, 2018 at 18:41
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    @jamesqf - yes, this is true, although less true when it comes to not very distant languages (e.g. English has a Latin influence, modern Romanian borrows a lot of concepts from English, same alphabet). However, this should normally justify minor differences, not significantly different meanings.
    – Alexei
    Commented Mar 22, 2018 at 19:28

2 Answers 2


Is it something usual for a government to issue official letters that are slightly different when in different languages? I mean written in one of the country's official language vs. translated version meant for a foreign official.

This is common-place and indeed, it is almost universally true.

No translation of more than the shortest or most technical phase is perfect. It is almost impossible to write the same letter in two languages without having subtle differences with some semantic relevance and there are different schools of thought among translators over what kind of differences to minimize, and which not to worry about.


It also might be noted that the change was due to an effort to preserve what was said (the spirit of the law) verses the way it was said (the letter of the law). It could also be tailored to avoid a loophole not present in one but present in the other. Typically, this is avoided by adopting common languages for laws and applying the rule based on those laws, but this is not the case. You can see this effect in the Sochie and Beijing Olympics where the parade of nations (traditionally ordered as Greece, Everyone else by alphabetical order, Host country) and is announced in French, English, and Host's language. In the case of Sochie the order for the nations was arranged by the Cyrillic Alphabet, rather than the Latin Alphabet. In China, which lacks an alphabet, they instead ordered the nations by the number of brush strokes in their official Chinese name, which disordered the traditional parade insanely.

In the case of the Chinese name, almost all national names do not translate into Chinese, so the Chinese typically use a neutral or flattering name for a country that closely fits some description of the nation. For example, the word for the United States of America directly translates to "The Beautiful Country" and mostly puns off the second syllable in the "America" sounding like the Chinese word for Beautiful. The archaic word for United States is "The Country with the Patterned Flag" and stems from the fact that the American Flag was frequently in port cities and was rather distinct when compared to other nations.

A non-political one is that I have watched a few Japanese shows that are entirely fan translated to English subtitles and aren't officially released in the United States. Of the two primary translation orgs, one will prefer a more direct translation where the language as is written as a direct translation while the other prefers to preserve the meaning where-ever possible. One series (Kamen Rider Ghost) featured a rhyming couplet for each form the hero took. The former translator preserved the words as spoken and lost the rhyme in all cases. The later prefered to preserve the rhyme, and wrote an English rhyme that preserved the ideas espoused, but lost the direct meaning.

And because comments mentioned it in the OP, I wanted to point out that while it's usually the case that distant languages don't typically translate at a one to one, there are exceptions. For example the Japanese word "Yuma" and the English word "Dream" mean the exact same thing in every contextual use it is spoken in (i.e. senses produced during REM sleep cycle or a life goal or desired outcome of events). In addition, in the joke "A wife asks her husband if he thinks she is pretty or ugly. The husband responds 'pretty ugly'" the gag works in nearly every major language on a one to one translation. The oxymoron "Pretty Ugly" is language neutral and no society has a husband wife relationship where the question is not asked.

  • Most of the answer is made of irrelevant (though interesting) anecdotes. And "pretty ugly" doesn't translate to Russian and Hebrew.
    – ugoren
    Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 18:25

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