TRANSLATING EUROPE’S BABEL.

As of May 1, there will be twenty official languages at the EU—and all of them will need to be translated into each other. Angus Roxburgh of BBC News explains the situation:

Twenty languages gives a total of 190 possible combinations (English-German, French-Czech, Finnish-Portuguese, etc), and finding any human being who speaks, for example, both Greek and Estonian or Slovene and Lithuanian is well-nigh impossible.
To get round this problem, the parliament will use much more “relay translation”, where a speech is interpreted first into one language and then into another – and perhaps into a fourth or fifth.
Clearly the scope for mistakes in this game of Chinese whispers is huge.
“If I’m first in the chain, and make a mistake, then everyone else down the relay makes the same mistake – or worse,” Jana Jalvi, one of the new Estonian recruits says.

Of course, one possibility would be to settle on a single language:

The obvious choice, in fact, would be English, which is more widely spoken as a second language than any other.
But the French – who have the parliament on their soil and who, after all, were founder-members of the EU – were outraged by the very suggestion.
They are already miffed at the slow easing-out of their language as the chief means of communication in the European Commission, where English is steadily gaining ground…
Meanwhile, translating has become the EU’s biggest boom industry.

(Via wood s lot.)
Update. Claire at Anggargoon has an interesting suggestion:

The answer’s perfectly obvious: the official language should be treated like the presidency of the EU. That is, it should rotate amongst the member states. Whoever’s president gets to pick the official language for their term. No language is given special status over another.

I like it—especially if the president has a puckish sense of humor and picks, say, Kabardian!

Comments

  1. What, a single language? A logical solution? Since English (a possible case could also be made for French) is the most obvious choice, this will not happen.

  2. Michael Farris says:

    The idealistic egalitarian part of me likes the idea of a more neutral auxiliary language (whether esperanto, interlingua or even latin). But the realistic part of me knows this will never happen.
    And why is a single language such a good solution anyway? Wouldn’t that have the basic effect of disenfranchising those who don’t speak it? (still a majority for any particular european language you want to name)
    I think the newer member states have enough disadvantages without an English Only EU policy.
    One solution (a little better than the single language option) is a split between working and official languages with English, French and German as the working languages (and an ever-increasing number of ‘official’ languages). English, French and German are the three languages most widely learned as second languages. With this policy you should only ever need one relay interpreter (maybe two in really exceptional circumstances)

  3. Des theorizes “that the best way to deal with this problem would be to set up a hereditary caste/guild of translators with branches in each EU country. Childrens born into the guild would be circulated around guild-run boarding schools in a suitable selection of countries to acquire native speaker aptitude while the acquiring is good.” Seems sharp enough to me. Where can I bank my sperm?

  4. Apparently getting things translated into Maltese has been a particular problem. The Maltese-language version of the EU constitution was riddled with mistakes and now there are pushes to get more people certified to translate the language as well as a push to simplify/refine Maltese orthography.
    Times of Malta editorial about EU translation
    article on bad EU translations
    article on translator training
    Maltese Independent article on orthography reform
    editorial in favor of orthography changes
    editorial against orthography changes
    reply to editorial against orthography changes
    my blogging about the proposed orthography changes

  5. Michael Farris says:

    As a big fan of Maltese, I thank you for the links. As far as the orthography goes, c-dot is useless since it doesn’t contrast with a non-dotted c within Maltese and gh-bar
    doesn’t seem to contrast with g+h, that is I’ve never seen the combination of g + non-barred h (I guess it’s theoretically possible but very, very rare). The h-bar, g-dot and z-dot are useful however (IMHO). (z-dot is the least useful of the three, but I’d rather have it than not). I also like having the final grave and the occasional circumflex for vowels, but that’s just me.
    As an experiment I once copied a 60 or so page Maltese document into Word and changed c-dot to c and gh-bar to gh and found the result just as readable as the regular current orthography. On the other hand, ASCII Maltese is difficult for this non-native to read.
    (Word is really fun for orthographic fiddling around)

  6. Michael Farris says:

    “the best way to deal with this problem would be to set up a hereditary caste/guild of translators with branches in each EU country”
    I wonder if Des realizes that something like this was a major component of the Native Tongue SciFi trilogy by Suzette Haden Elgin (at least the first two books). In that case though, the linguist family-guilds’ main occupation was interpreting between humans and aliens.

  7. Carob reports a (German) April Fool’s joke
    http://www.words-worth.de/robin/2004_04_01_archive.php#108143570995815959
    about a revolutionary translation system. “The article takes the form of an interview with a certain Ensimmäinen Huhtikuuta, Professor of Chinese Studies and Comparative Linguistics at the Helsinki University.” (his name apparently means April 1st)

  8. I just got home from three weeks in the Netherlands. (After an all night 15 hour nonstop mini van ride ) They all speak English, and it has not hurt their Dutch a bit. And now I speak a bit of their “Nederlandse taal”. That’s how it should work.

  9. The caste system was also used with Greek mercenaries in Egypt, according to Herodotus.

  10. “I just got home from three weeks in the Netherlands. (After an all night 15 hour nonstop mini van ride ) They all speak English, and it has not hurt their Dutch a bit. And now I speak a bit of their “Nederlandse taal”. That’s how it should work.”
    Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. The Dutch have grown to have little pride in their language, and it is difficult for a foreigner to master the language because the Dutch tend to answer solely in English. When I worked in Holland, I had a colleague from Italy who somehow managed to learn Dutch well. However, when he went shopping clerks tended to answer him in English upon hearing the foreign accent even though he wasn’t even a native speaker of English.
    This is a frustration that any student of Catalan, Occitan, or other minority languages will recognise. Once one language gain ascendency on the national or international scale, speakers of provincial languages believe that their language is “useless” or somehow harmful to the student, and even the most entusiastic of potential learners are turned away. I believe that English is the best choice for the language of the EU (and get a lot of flack from fellow speakers of Esperanto for that). However, its institution should take place alongside measures to enhance pride for regional languages. The Council of Europe has funded some work in this area, but it hasn’t been enough to even really get started.

  11. Christopher, you hang out with the wrong Esperantists. 🙂 Most of the Esperanto speakers I’ve discussed the EU language question with agree that the worst possible thing for our language would be adoption (and subsequently de facto control) by the EU.
    On the other hand, a single neutral language for everyone at the EU seems to be the best solution. English is not very neutral and is difficult to learn.

  12. Finnish is the obvious choice, as the front page of my site explains.
    Or, if we’re going to stick with tired old twentieth-century inside-the-box thinking, everything should be in German, French, or English. This would even allow for factions to develop, with the Poles perhaps refusing to use German (or contrariwise, as a diplomatic opening, insisting on German). Another axis of cleavage can only be good.
    Scott Martens has a lot of money riding on this, so we oughta ask his opinion.

  13. So what’s a “neutral language”? Swahili? Chinook Jargon?

  14. Does anybody remember what language was the oficial one at League of Nations? Considering the fact that international diplomatic language for passports is French (or I’m wrong and this has nothing to do with LoN), it was in fact French. In any case, the fate of that grand – and useless- organization is well known.
    I think by the time debates regarding official language will be concluded the issue will be rendered obsolete due to disappearance of the organisation itself, right after (or at the same time- I’m not picky) with UN.

  15. Michael Farris says:

    “So what’s a “neutral language”? Swahili? Chinook Jargon?”
    Within the context of the EU, yeah. Though technical support for both of those two languages make them less than optimal choices.
    Basically, by ‘neutral’ I (can’t speak for others, of course) mean: requires some work from everybody. EU English doesn’t require any work at all from native speakers (except for a kind of noblesse oblige toward non-native usage)and not much at all of residents of wealthy countries that speak very closely related languages (Netherlands, Scandinavia). As a resident of a country where fluent English speakers still aren’t very common, I don’t much like the idea of political service being tied to English. Especially since the elite can (and do) buy English for their children while the non-elite make do.
    If the UK and Ireland weren’t part of the EU then I’d be much more favorably inclined toward EU English. A few times I’ve been to an international conference in Hungary where English was the contact language and native speakers were few, far between and had no special ability to smack folks down over usage.
    Also, EU English Only means that the EU is playing by someone else’s rules, when one of the EU’s strengths should be the ability to handle data in more than one language (why not make US leaders make some effort in dealing with the EU?).

  16. So what language would you suggest? I’m curious. (It seems to me the practical utility of English overwhelms all other considerations, but I’m open to argument.)

  17. Cryptic Ned says:

    I would recommend the language that nobody speaks, but everyone wishes they spoke. Yes, I refer to Scots.

  18. Michael Farris says:

    “So what language would you suggest? I’m curious. (It seems to me the practical utility of English overwhelms all other considerations, but I’m open to argument.)”
    To the question, I’m not completely sure. If I had more money than I knew what to do with, I’d fund a think tank and small scale auxlang projects, seeing how esperanto, interlingua or latin would work as bridge languages.
    Back in the real world, I’d probably go with the working/official split (English, French, German working, maybe Russian) with documents provided to countries in the working languages and translations into other languages being the responsibility of the individual countries.
    For interpreting, I’d go with interpreting into and out of the working languages only.
    As for usefulness of English, useful for who? for what?
    I work in a linguistics institute at a Polish university renowned for its language teaching. Our students come to us with four years of English at highschool (at the very least). We’re not the most prestigious language-related unit in the university but we accept only about 15% of applicants. After two years of pretty intensive (8 classroom hours a week) study (combined with study of various other languages as other linguistics-related subjects) at least half of them still can’t read something like Newsweek or International Herald Tribune without major teacher help. Partly this is due to a restrictive, reactive curriculum structure (which I’m always fighting) but a big part of it is simply that super-fluent English (of the type which would be required under any EU English Only policy) doesn’t come as naturally to Polish speakers as it does to Dutch or Danish speakers. We do have some stars who are exceptionally fluent, but they’re not the rule. By way of contrast, starting from zero, they can read anything in Russian after a year of class (I have they impression that German learners get farther, faster as well, but that’s just an impression and I can’t back it up).

  19. latin.

  20. So what language would you suggest? I’m curious. (It seems to me the practical utility of English overwhelms all other considerations, but I’m open to argument.)
    I know you’ll think I’m a card-carrying crank for saying so, but Esperanto or something like it is one of the few good solutions to the most serious problems here. No matter what language you choose, the rich will be able to buy their children the skills they need unless the language is very easy to learn. Because it’s so easy to pick up, it’s also feasible to have everyone involved in the EU on a daily basis take a crash course in it, which reduces your translation needs to 2 * number of official languages (Eo-native language, native language-Eo for each language) and no regular need for simultaneous interpretation. And of course it avoids the problem of the French complaining about English. 😉

  21. Michael Farris says:

    There’s something to be said for Interlingua as well, since a) it doesn’t require special font considerations b) it’s more liberal in terms of syntax, pronunciation and accepting loan words (I have a tendency to pepper my esperanto with loanwords, which some speakers take a dim view of) and c) doesn’t attract (as many) nutjobs.
    I like Latin and it’s connection with European history, but the oddball grammar is a tough sell for non-philologists.

  22. “I like Latin and it’s connection with European history, but the oddball grammar is a tough sell for non-philologists.”
    Oddball grammar? The Slavic-speaking nations now joining the EU won’t think of it as oddball at all, and neither will the Hungarians or Finns. It’s only Western Europeans who tend to speak languages of relatively simple morphology that think Latin is an impossible language.

  23. Latin is far from an ideal language. Look at the difficulty of finding equivalents for modern terminology the Vatican has run into. Apart from that, Latin is by no means a politically neutral language. It is associated with the Western half of the Roman empire and Catholicism. It might not be so acceptable in parts of eastern Europe which fell under the Greek and Orthodox sphere of influence (particularly Greece itself). You also have some non-conformist Protestants in Western Europe who would violently object to the use of Latin on religious grounds. Latin would also give an unfair advantage to speakers of Romance languages.

  24. “I wonder if Des realizes that something like this was a major component of the Native Tongue SciFi trilogy by Suzette Haden Elgin,” wonders Michael Farris.
    Wonder no more! I’d never heard of her or the SciFi trilogy of which you speak until just now. And aliens, schmaliens – we’ve got Hungarian to deal with.

  25. Tatyana – it was French, period. Unofficially, English was widely used, but LoN institutions were French only until they were taken over by the UN in 1944.
    As for Europe’s translation problems – the half-assed solution is in progress. It will almost certainly involve a combination of spending more on translation; using more translators to compose texts in something other than their native language and a combination of new technologies to help make that easier for them; and a de facto policy of authoring texts originally in English, French or German instead of in the Union’s smaller languages and then translating them into other languages. There will certainly also be some pivot translation. Controlled language ad new translation memories will make that a little easier, but not by much.
    The idealist in me thinks an artifical language is a better way to go if Europe is to have a single language. The practical, cold-blooded linguist in me says that it is impossible – not merely hard, impossible – to make that work. Bad English has become entrenched in EU institutions, and bad English will remain. Bad French or bad German could, theoretically, replace it, but good English will never replace bad English under any circumstances.

  26. Tok Pisin.

  27. Christopher Culver: This is a frustration that any student of Catalan, Occitan, or other minority languages will recognise. Once one language gain ascendency on the national or international scale, speakers of provincial languages believe that their language is “useless” or somehow harmful to the student
    Though I agree with your general point about the difficulty for the foreign student of gaining proficiency in a minority language, last time I checked Catalonia didn’t share this view about its language being useless or harmful.

  28. Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. Galician might have been a better choice (though I’m just guessing; I don’t know specifically how gallegos feel about their language).

  29. In re working languages, I think the EU should be forced to adopt the languages of the minorities that give it fits. So: Romani and Arabic, and Yiddish if you want historical resonance. (And yes, the U.S. Congress should be required to operate in Navajo.)

  30. the U.S. Congress should be required to operate in Navajo.
    I’d pay good money to see that.

  31. Myslím, že řešení této jazykové krise lze najít jedině v umělém jazyku. Pokud bychom totiž měli užívat jeden z živých jazyků, výhoda rodilých mluvčích při důležitých diskusích je nezměrná, nerodilý mluvčí, ač dobrý řečník, se nevyrovná rodilému a připadá si často trapně, méněcenně. Latina je pěkná, ale příliš složitá pro lidi bez jazykového nadání.
    (CZE)

  32. Josef says that an artificial language is the only solution, because otherwise native speakers will have an insuperable advantage: others, no matter how well they may know the chosen language, will express themselves awkwardly. Latin is nice, but too complicated for people without a gift for languages.
    Josef: How about Latino sine flexione (Wiki)? It removes just about all the complications and would be easy for anyone who has been exposed to a Romance language to learn. There’s considerable discussion of (and messages in) that and other similar languages (like Occidental) in this five-year-old AUXLANG archive.

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