Will EN remain a key language?
Could it be displaced by another pivotal language eg FR?
- EN has certainly not disappeared; it is an official language in 2 member states: Ireland and Malta. Brexit has not changed the status of EN. Arguably, it is even more of a lingua franca, since it is no longer associated with a big (and some might say: awkward) member state.
- Things used to be different. FR was the dominant language until 1995 (when AT, SE and FI joined) eg the press room used only FR; Commission documents were drafted mainly in FR; FR was the most widely used language in meetings. The big enlargement of 2004 confirmed the decline of FR as a lingua franca and the hegemony of EN – much to the ‘chagrin’ of French people I know.
- Could FR become the pivotal language once again? No: it is the preferred foreign language of too few officials and delegates; the global supremacy of EN has become ever more entrenched.
- In multilingual meetings (23-23), EN tends to be the pivotal language, providing a relay which all interpreters understand (which is not entirely true of FR, DE or other relay languages). Whether it is the EN booth working from passive languages or the LV booth providing a retour into EN makes no difference: the medium is EN. Even if Ireland and Malta were to leave the EU (unimaginable), it would be impossible to put together big interpreting teams without the glue of EN.
But could the EN booth be a victim of the success of EN?
- All multilingual gatherings tend to gravitate towards a dominant language (eg management meetings, depending on the chairman’s language): the key terms are couched in that language and participants feel that they can communicate more directly in the dominant language. If the participants are sufficiently fluent in EN, multilingualism can become an optional extra, a mere façade or a crutch for the linguistically challenged. A certain stigma may even be attached to the use of a less prestigious language. If you are a FR finance minister you may still speak FR (which has some residual prestige), but I recall one such minister (for whom I was working in consecutive) feeling the need to explain why his EN was not up to scratch (he had chosen IT and RU at school). Ecofin is a meeting which takes place almost entirely in EN, with multilingualism on show for public sessions – or for occasional participants who find it more restful to listen to interpretation in their language. We are on the way to the withering away of interpretation in such meetings.
- Some argue that we could see the withering away not of interpretation per se, but of the EN booth. We could move towards a ‘hub and spoke’ system, as practised in the heyday of the Soviet bloc (the Czechs interpreted into RU and back into CS etc). No EN booth would be needed, since all other booths would provide a retour into EN. How likely is this? (1) Not very, although we are entirely dependent on retours from LV and LT: no one in SCIC interprets from LV or LT except for Latvians or Lithuanians. Our dependency on retours is likely to increase. However, few colleagues in the other big booths have a retour into EN: a ‘hub and spoke’ system would require many years’ investment. (2) A second factor is that a hub and spoke system based on EN would confer on EN a special status which it has ‘de facto’ – but there would undoubtedly be objections if it were officially recognized. (3) A third question is: would it be as good? Probably not: the quality of the interpretation into EN would be extremely variable, since it would be provided by 44 different interpreters in a 23-23 meeting. Moreover, interpreters are better working into their mother tongue. That does not mean that the EN booth’s interpretation of SK will always be better than a SK retour: an excellent retour will produce better results than an imperfect grasp of a fifth passive language (SK is my fifth language, so I am perhaps on shaky ground here!). However, other things being equal (which they rarely are), higher quality can be achieved if interpreters concentrate on working from their passive languages. (4) A final point is about standard setting: if the EN booth withers away, there is no gold standard any longer and there are no native speakers to provide retour training and assess retours in tests.
And finally: what kind of EN and what kind of future for native speakers of EN?
- Brexit was all about taking back control (oh dear: politics has crept in). But it may be too late to take back control over EN. EN may have ousted FR as the dominant language in Brussels, but it has become contaminated by Gallicisms. The verb ‘to foresee’ is vastly overused: ‘The regulation foresees that…’(instead of ‘provides that’); ‘We have foreseen 5 meetings’ (instead of ‘scheduled’)– all this because of the influence of ‘prévoir’ in FR. There is far too much respect: we should respect our father and mother and human rights by all means, but we should observe speed limits and comply with legislation (whereas ‘respecter’ would be used in FR). In the Commission today everyone talks about ‘trainings’ for training sessions or training courses.
- This phenomenon is a strong argument in favour of having an EN booth and skilled native speakers in DG Translation, who can uphold high standards. The challenge will be to find enough native speakers with the right kind of nationality – although freelances can be of any nationality. More broadly, what will the impact of Brexit be on language teaching and language learning in the UK? Will young people in what is now a third country still be attracted to working for the EU institutions? Our pool of talent will shrink if language knowledge declines and a more insular outlook sets in.
- And yet: I remain convinced that the EU institutions will continue to need native speakers of EN as interpreters, translators, editors and communicators. Once the current crisis is over, there are bright prospects for young Irish linguists, but we cannot rely only on the Irish pool of talent. We shall need talent from the UK – as freelances or as members of staff, if they have (or acquire) an EU nationality. I do not believe in the withering away of multilingualism, quite simply because language is so much part and parcel of national identity and the EU cannot afford to be linguistically remote from its citizens.
John SWALES, Head of English Interpreting, European Commission (SCIC)