Latvia's translator-in-chief sits at his desk leafing through dog-eared French and English dictionaries, trying to think of a Latvian word for "ombudsman."

As chief terminologist at Latvia's Translation and Terminology Center, Peteris Udris is working to pull the country's language out of its Soviet-era hibernation and into the age of free markets, open borders and modern technology.

"For 50 years our language lived behind the Iron Curtain, away from English, and we had no need to translate words we would never use," he said.

Included in that category are terms like "entrepreneur," which English incorporated from French, "franchise" and "bank overdraft."

Driving the language's modernization is the nation's pending membership in the European Union. Joining the 15-member bloc will cap Latvia's struggle to reorient itself to the West and away from Russia.

But first it has to translate reams of EU laws -- 80,000 pages and counting -- from English and French into Latvian.

The daunting task has translators in Latvia and the two other former Soviet countries in the Baltic region, Estonia and Lithuania, scrambling to update and purify languages diluted by foreign invaders for centuries.

English, piped into Latvians' homes on MTV, CNN and the Internet (or Datortiklsinternet), has trumped Russian as the latest threat to the Latvian language.

Urdis, a ponytailed 34-year-old, taught himself English, German and French as the Soviet Union crumbled in the 1980s. He also dabbles in Swedish and Estonian and recently co-wrote a Latvian-language textbook aimed at English speakers called "Do It in Latvian."

So far, Urdis and the terminology center's 57 other linguists and translators have come up with 51,000 new Latvian words.

Each term has to be approved by a government commission, and it takes an average of three years for people to begin using a term regularly, said the center's director, Marta Jaksona.

The center periodically sends out lists of new words to newspapers, hoping journalists will lead the way in incorporating the words into the Latvian lexicon.

Jaksona sees the center on the front line of a battle to save Latvian, which many here had feared would die out during the Soviet period. Latvia, a country of 2.5 million people, was occupied by the Soviet Union during World War II and remained under its control until 1991.

"We're not doing this just to enter the EU," Jaksona said. "It's very important to us that our language survives, and that will only happen if we help keep it modern, keep it alive."

Latvia's government passed tough laws limiting the use of Russian on television and radio, and linguists spent much of the 1990s replacing Russian words that infiltrated the language. Now they're taking on English.

A few years ago, for example, they invented the word dators to replace "komputer," the unofficial word for "computer" used by most Latvians.

Latvians now have words like lasamatmina -- or reading toy -- which replaced CD-ROM. An entrepreneur is now called a uznemejs, or risk taker, instead of just an "entrepreneris."

Often terms are devised by combining existing words.

But sometimes Udris rediscovers words -- particularly legal terms -- that fell out of use during the communist era and that don't appear in modern Latvian dictionaries.

Most of the language's government and legal terminology was devised during the country's only other period of independence in its 850-year history -- the 23 years between the two world wars. Before the Soviets, the Germans, Swedes, Poles and Russians took turns ruling Latvia and diluting the language with foreign words.

As Udris thumbs through his aging, yellowed copies of the Latvian Conversation Dictionary, a multiple-volume encyclopedia of the Latvian language printed in the 1920s and 1930s, the old words get new life. But even that is limited.

"As you can see, it ends with volume 'T,' " he said.

The Soviets halted publication of the dictionary before it was completed, and just a few copies of those produced still exist. Language scholars hope to complete it and restart publication in coming months.

Devising new fishing terms has proved a complicated task.

Bordering the Baltic Sea, Latvia has a modern fishing industry that matured under Soviet rule, but the language lacks words for the parts of modern ships, not to mention the names of fish from other parts of Europe.

"Russians were brought in to do most of the fishing during the Soviet days because it was feared Latvians might try to escape on the boats," Udris said.

He sheepishly acknowledges that some "Anglified" words are too entrenched to be pulled out of Latvians' vocabulary.

Latvians, for example, will likely always ask for a "kompactdisk" and pay for it with a "kredit karte," he said.

That also applies to "ombudsman." After considering the Latvian word for mediator, a resigned Udris decided to lop off part of the word and just settle for "ombuds."

"It's a Swedish word anyway, so that's okay," he said.

Latvians pass by an Italian restaurant in downtown Riga. Latvia's pending membership in the EU is driving an effort to revise the national lexicon.