My name is David and I work as a freelance interpreter of the Spanish booth in the European Union institutions. Today I am going to talk to you about Maltese, which is one of my favourite languages.
As you may know already, Maltese is one of the 24 official languages of the European Union, but there is something that makes it somehow unique, and that’s the fact that Maltese is the only Semitic language in the club. This basically means that Maltese belongs to the same language family as Arabic or Hebrew. However, if you listen to it, you may be able to recognise also many Italian and English words here and there.
Nowadays, Maltese is dominant only in the Maltese islands, but there is a significant diaspora who still speak Maltese outside the islands. I think we find the most important example in Australia, where you can buy Maltese products at the supermarket, and Maltese speakers have their own radio station –in Maltese, of course!
But, let’s go back to Malta! Before I visited the islands for the first time, before I got to know them better, I always thought that Malta was an English-only speaking country. I thought that Maltese was just a language that children would learn at school and then never ever use. However, the minute I landed in the islands for the first time, I realised that the opposite was true, and how!
Honestly, I am so happy it is one of the official languages of the Union, not only because that allowed me to work for the EU institutions, but also because in this way we make sure that somehow Maltese is preserved, that it survives globalisation and adapts to new realities.
Now, let’s talk about one of Malta’s relatively new realities: the European Union. You may be wondering what are the European fora in which Maltese can be spoken. Well, we have the technical meetings in the European Council, for example, where all countries are represented by a national delegate or an expert who are able to use Maltese if they wish; then you have the consultative bodies of the European Union, namely the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. We have, of course, the European Parliament, where Malta has six MEPs who can use Maltese in meetings and where hearings are organized where citizens and guests from the Member States and beyond may be invited. There is also a Maltese commissioner, a Maltese member of the European Court of Auditors, and Maltese politicians may visit the European institutions from time to time.
So, as you can see, Maltese is widely represented in the European institutions. However, this does not mean that Maltese speakers always choose to use Maltese in meetings. Unfortunately, and, just like many other delegates from other nationalities, they tend to use English more and more.
When it comes to the private interpreting market, we cannot say that Maltese is a conference language. Do not get me wrong; there are conferences in Maltese in Malta, but they are rarely interpreted, and if they are, interpretation may be assured from and into English at most. So the private market –for Maltese Cs, in any case– is virtually non-existent.
In fact, there wouldn’t be enough interpreters to meet the demand of a bigger market, anyway. Here, in the European institutions, apart from our excellent colleagues in the Maltese booth -who usually have a retour into English or Italian- there are only three staff interpreters and three freelancers, including myself, who interpret from Maltese into English, French, Italian, Dutch and Spanish.
Taking all this into account, you can imagine how difficult it was to find ways to study the language and –in particular- to practice interpreting from Maltese. I was lucky enough to participate in the interpreting programme of the University of Malta, after my studies at ISIT Paris, and I owe my Maltese teachers and classmates most of what I am today.
To conclude I want to answer a question that many people ask me very often: is it worth it to learn Maltese? To which I usually answer with a series of questions: is it worth it to learn Lithuanian? Is it worth it to learn Greek? And German? Well, IT DEPENDS. It depends on your mother tongue, on the market you want to work in, on your interpreting skills, amongst many other factors.
Learning Maltese worked out for me, first of all, because I love the language. I love its culture, its people, its literature and I love the Maltese islands. They are part of me now. Also, I passed my accreditation tests just before the start of the Maltese Presidency of the Council, which helped me make my first steps and rapidly gain valuable experience in the booth. For me, Maltese was definitely a door opener.
The problem with ‘small’ languages, though, is that the markets in which they are used are also very small or virtually non-existent. In this background, the EU market may be appealing, but from the moment you start learning the language in question until the moment in which you may feel ready to take an accreditation test, no one will give you any guarantees of success whatsoever. Even after passing the test, no days of work are systematically assured to you. Not to talk about the fact that, if you want to work in the EU market, you will need to move your professional domicile to Brussels, with all that implies at several levels.
Bigger languages may offer you more opportunities if you don’t make it into the interpreting market. Someone who masters German, French, Spanish or English could apply for a job in countries or companies where those languages are spoken and thus considered an asset.
So, if you start learning a small language, be it Maltese, Latvian, Icelandic, you name it, make sure you like it and enjoy the journey. Only in this way will you avoid regret if, for better or for worse –because you never know–, your plan does not turn out as expected.
Other than that, I wish you the best of luck, whatever the language you are studying. Be positive, be optimistic, work hard and always believe in what you do.
Thank you very much.
David CABRERA es intérprete de conferencias profesional.1