Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The billion euro Babel

It is projected that next year the costs of translating speeches and documents into all the languages of the European Union will reach the astronomical sum of a billion euros. The increasingly complex sequence of linguistic permutations is being made even more complex with the addition of new translation and interpretation rights for the Irish language. There can’t be many Irish-Maltese or Irish-Greek speakers, and what few there are will be able to demand a hefty salary. And if Brussels is to avoid charges of racism from the various corners of the United Kingdom, it will soon have to add Welsh and Gaelic as well. All of this because the EU cannot agree on a lingua franca for the Union, principally because the French will not permit English to dominate.

It is worth revisiting Genesis 11:1-9. The Strasbourg parliament building was modelled on Bruegel’s Tower of Babel, in the symbolic hope of ending the curse of linguistic limitation of man ceasing to understand man. Without mutual communication through a common language it is impossible to cooperate either commercially or socially, so it is interesting to examine the origin of both towers. Genesis records the motive as ‘making a name for themselves’, which is a motive not so far removed from the entire EU edifice. The confusion of languages is a divine antidote to human arrogance, and the Lord saw fit to halt their grandiose construction project. The Babylonians’ desire was to displace God, to exalt their own name, and to scheme without reference to his declared will. The EU is an increasingly secular institution, it aspires to global influence ‘to counterbalance the dominance of the US’, and has eliminated God and acknowledgement of him from its constitution. The Lord destroyed the Tower of Babel, and scattered the peoples over the face of the earth. Does such a fate await the European Union?


Blogger Croydonian said...

I know a woman who is a translator at the Commission, and the form is rarely Greek to Gaelic or Estonian to Spanish, but rather from 'minor' language to 'major' language and then to 'minor' language.

If his Grace will forgive the meander, an anecdote: Many years ago an MEP from Normandy made a comment about some supposedly intractable dilemma with words to the effect of 'Ce probleme sera resolu grace a la sagesse normande'. This was rendered by the translator as 'This problem will be solved with the help of norman widsom', causing a vast outbreak of sniggering from MEPs from these islands and much confusion on the part of the hapless MEP.

18 July 2006 at 09:18  
Anonymous Ulster Man said...

Is Croydonian right? Why don't the French object to that? If everything is translated via English, doesn't that make English the de facto lingua franca?

18 July 2006 at 09:41  
Blogger Croydonian said...

UM - I've just found this confirmation:

"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".

18 July 2006 at 10:04  
Anonymous Rick said...

I think the Commission should revert to Latin.............if the Hebdomadal Council at Oxford could function in Latin until 1856 I see no reason why The Commission and Parliament do not..............it would have a very satisfactory by-product of inaction

18 July 2006 at 10:10  
Anonymous Ulster Man said...

Croydonian, that's a recipe for major confusion! Can you image the potential for errors and misinterpretations involved in multiple translations? In fact, it's not so much translation as transliteration or some sort of verbal 'equivalence'. How do they deal with strange colloquialisms?!!

18 July 2006 at 10:44  
Blogger Croydonian said...

UM - One can certainly see it all going horribly wrong....

One more tale of translation errors: Menachem Begin was once introduced as 'Monsieur Menachem Commencer'. Yes, really.

18 July 2006 at 10:55  
Blogger phone cam foolery said...

Many years ago(24) I hitch hiked around France, One of the lifts I got was from an Aussie who worked for the Eu as a translator, he claimed sometimes he could make £400 a week , 24 years ago!
God knows what they get today.
Interesting holiday, given a lift by an Algerian homosexual who was the spitting image of Anwar saddat and nearly drowned falling off some rocks into the sea near St Malo.

18 July 2006 at 12:37  
Blogger Croydonian said...

There is good money to be made as a transaltor in Brussels / Strassburg, but imagine the tedium of translating speeches by eurocrats.

The translators have my sympathies, their bank balances notwithstaning

18 July 2006 at 14:28  
Anonymous Rick said...

I see that West Yorkshire Police has a budget of £382 million but devotes £1 million of same to paying for translation services..................


A Bradford Council spokesman said the 2001 census identified regular use of Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi, Gujarati, Benghali, Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Italian, Chinese and Greek in the district. But he said Kurdish, Albanian and French should now be added to the list.

18 July 2006 at 18:26  
Anonymous topmanny said...

The french always disagree with everything concerning the EU.

19 July 2006 at 11:42  
Anonymous hovis said...

What's the quote about translation being like a woman - the more beautiful, the less faithful or something ...

25 July 2006 at 11:36  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cranmer - there is an undercurrent of xenophobia here - surely you are not suggesting everyone just stop being so bloody awkward and just speak in English ? Perhaps you should start by going round the streets of the UK, starting in Carmarthen, moving via Birmingham and ending up in Bradford with that suggestion.

The EU is indeed a cheating, lying, untrustworthy beast. Just streamlining the languages ain't really the problem, now is it ?

6 August 2006 at 16:39  

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