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Brexit Britain fails to play the game

But not quite in the sense that the Telegraph‘s Brussels Correspondent, James Crisp, thinks.

He has written a piece entitled “Terrible translations of Brexit White Paper make Britain a laughing stock in Brussels”

British officials botched the translation of Theresa May’s discredited White Paper into European languages, part of a UK strategy to win concessions from Brussels, and failed to translate the document into Irish, despite being locked in fraught Brexit talks over Ireland’s border.

The paper’s executive summary, which Britain hopes to use to help solve the vexed border issue, has been translated, poorly, into 22 languages. The full 100-page document has only been translated into one other language, Welsh, which, unlike Irish, is not an official EU language.

After The Telegraph contacted the British Government, an Irish version was published on Thursday afternoon, two days after the other translations but the damage was already done. A DexEU spokeswoman said the translations were being published as they were finished.

Basic errors and amateurish negligence has not only wasted an opportunity to win hearts and minds on the Continent but will confirm Brussels’ worst suspicions about the government. It exposes, once again, how poorly the Department for Exiting the European Union understands Brussels, its priorities and its culture.

When Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, travelled to Dublin he made a point of addressing reporters in Irish. The gesture was appreciated in Dublin and left some in tears. The EU-27 governments have made it clear they will back Ireland to the hilt with senior figures insisting “we are all Irish”.

In contrast the tin-eared Brits considered the common courtesy of an Irish translation an afterthought.

We saw so many palaces and temples during our visit to Japan that they have merged in my mind. But in one of them, probably the former Imperial Palace at Kyoto, there was a fine recreation of a great daimyo awaiting an audience with the emperor. Etiquette (the sort enforced with swords) forbade him to stroll in and say, “Your Majesty, we need to talk” – even if the emperor needed and wanted to hear what he had to say. No, he had to wait for hours on his knees in a beautiful but austere anteroom, contemplating the painted screens. I thought of that daimyo with his knees aching under his perfectly arranged silk robe when I read Mr Crisp’s line, “It exposes, once again, how poorly the Department for Exiting the European Union understands Brussels, its priorities and its culture.” The priorities and culture of Tokugawa-period Kyoto required that the emperor’s symbolic importance be reinforced by making everyone wait for hours before business could be done. None of the usual reasons or excuses for being kept waiting applied. The wait was the point.

The priorities and culture of European Union-period Brussels require that every document be translated into a couple of dozen languages. I will focus on Irish in particular because for that language the divorce from the usual point of translation, to enable communication, is complete. Not one Irish parliamentarian or official actually needed the White Paper translated into Irish in order to understand it. Probably no more than a handful of them are even capable of reading it in Irish. Like the deference to the emperor in Kyoto when real power lay with the Shogun in Edo, the laborious process of translation into Irish before business can be done is all just a symbolic obeisance, a court ritual, a game.

The UK was never very good at this languages game and will drop it with relief once out of the EU. In contrast Ireland is firmly in the EU and plays the game better than anyone. (Though as I will argue later, this may not be to the advantage of the long term survival of Irish.) Although Irish has been an official language of the EU since 2007, it was only in 2015 that the the decision was taken to upgrade the language to a full working language of the European institutions. By 2022 it is hoped that the “derogation phase” during which the EU was let off the obligation to provide full translation or interpretation services for every document to and from Irish will be over.

The way things are going, the apotheosis of Irish as a full EU working language will coincide neatly with its death as a native language.

Many of the English – and even some of the Irish – shrug their shoulders at the prospect, and talk of “efficiency”. From what I have written so far you might think I was one of them. You would be wrong. I see language death as a tragedy. Quite apart from the loss of beauty, I fear a world unified under one language for the same reasons I fear a world unified under one government. If that last culture falls under the sway of a tyranny, there is nowhere else to flee, no one else to keep the flame alive.

For many reasons I would love to see the apparently inexorable slide towards extinction of more than half the languages spoken on Earth reversed. Alas, that shows no sign of happening. Naturally those who love their threatened language are moved when they hear a visiting foreigner make the effort to speak it. (Really, though, there was no need to burst into tears just because Donald Tusk memorised a few phrases. It was a nice gesture, but if that’s all it takes to get the Irish political class to fall at one’s feet, Theresa May ought to reinstate Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary and get him to do one of his linguistic party pieces.)

Naturally, too, those who love their threatened language want to see it enshrined in an official position of parity with the other languages of Europe. But “enshrined” is the word. Shrines are not raised to the living. The question comes unbidden: who actually reads the endless streams of EU documents translated so dutifully into Irish? I have a horrible suspicion that the answer is no one, no one at all. Lurking on forums discussing the future of the Irish language I have read well-argued claims that the exodus to Brussels of so many of the best-educated native Irish speakers is one of the factors causing the Gaeltachts, the Irish-speaking areas, to decline. It cements the perception – and helps make the perception fact – that for a young person with talent and ambition there is no life to be had in the Gaeltacht. What a strange life these exiles must have. They grow up in one of the few remaining parts of Ireland where the ancient tongue is still spoken in the streets. Presumably inspired by a wish to preserve that inheritance they study for many years to reach the high standards required to be a professional translator or interpreter, and their voices are no longer heard in those streets. Off to Brussels they go (plus a monthly trip to Strasbourg), where they speak beautiful Irish into headphones tuned into another channel and write less beautiful Irish about Section 6, sub-section 13, paragraph 1(a)(iv) of the Directive on This, That and The Other that not one human soul will ever read.

28 comments to Brexit Britain fails to play the game

  • Regional

    The Brits should just walk out of the E.U. and let individual nations deal with them, which will be best interests of both partys’.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    I think that if the Europeons want a unifying language, they should make Esperanto compulsory!! It has failed in its’ task of unifying the world, so it would be a perfect lingo for EUrotopia.

  • Fred Z

    We are so bloody, wonderfully, unspeakably wealthy that we can indulge in silly games like this.

    Long may it continue.

  • William O. B'Livion.

    The thing about bargaining is that you don’t OPEN with where you want to wind up.

    You open with as much as you can ask without the other person laughing and walking away.

    Y’all *should* be telling Brussels that you’re leaving *now*.

    Or rather “Fuck y’all we gone.”

  • bobby b

    I remember visiting a place years ago where the indigenous types had historically worn winter clothing made from dead seals. If you speak the name of the people, almost everyone will immediately form a mental image of someone in a huge sealskin coat with fur around the hood.

    But, when I was there, these people were all wearing big bulky North Face and EMS goose down expedition jackets.

    Someone in our group asked a guide about this. Didn’t they want to preserve their traditions and culture? Why switch to something that everyone else in the world was wearing and lose their heritage by doing so? Why no sealskin apparel?

    “Because they’re too damned cold, and too damned hard to make” was the answer. If we wanted to see his heritage and culture and history, he told us, we were free to walk down to the town’s museum, where we’d see lots of clothes like the ones we expected to see, but in the meantime, he thought that actually staying warm was more of a priority.

    I think that’s a great philosophy for the preservation of individual languages. Some people at school should, if they desire, make a study of their own languages in order to keep them alive, but the actual communications of the people ought to be through a medium that offers utility. Speaking a language shared by many people makes for smoother communication across borders, plus it makes education more accessible and affordable. It’s much easier and cheaper to find an English textbook than an Inuit textbook.

    (As to the main thesis of your post, this is the form-over-substance idiocy that we see every day in government and politics. The complaint that “you didn’t deliver your petition on the proper 26-pound off-white linen paper” stems from the same impulse that holds that national policy should be made only by the “right” people, and that orange-haired television contest hosts ought not lead nations. It ignores substance – because it loses on substance – and attacks on form.

    I would say that the insistence upon the many useless translations makes Brussels the laughingstock, not Britain – but calling Britain the laughingstock is exactly how this game is played, and clearly points out that The Telegraph is in the game, and on one specific side. The game is won, by Britain, by throwing it right back in Brussels’ face and laughing at their outmoded anachronistic rules-for-everything.)

  • I, for one, am deeply offended that the EU do not bother to translate all their rules and regulations and edicts into the perfectly legitimate and proper language of Ebonics. Don’t they care about black people? Where’s the respect?

    I feel that it is high time for the British people to demand that the racists in Brussels remedy this intolerable omission.

  • James Crisp, another Eurocrat journalist working in the British media. For the supposedly Eurosceptic Telegraph.

  • Off to Brussels they go (plus a monthly trip to Strasbourg), where they speak beautiful Irish into headphones tuned into another channel and write less beautiful Irish about Section 6, sub-section 13, paragraph 1(a)(iv) of the Directive on This, That and The Other that not one human soul will ever read.

    To which, again, no-one is listening, since the Irish MEPs are all listening to the translation in English.

  • When Conor Cruise O’Brien was asked a difficult question in the Dail (the Irish parliament), he would reply with a stirring eloquent Gaelic homily – that his fellow members could only admire but not in the least understand. I can well believe that no-one who is not paid or forced to do so reads the tosh the EU generates in such bulk in any language, but I am sure Natalie is right that literally no-one reads the Gaelic translations of these incredibly dull documents.

    In saner times, Eire officials did not insist on the EU translating to Eire’s ‘official’ language – they knew they didn’t themselves. And, as Natalie strongly hints, the idiotic 2016 rule can be derogated from until 2022; it is insolent – and revealing – that anyone would feign ‘outrage’ over the production of a document that no-one in Eire will use to study these matters.

    It is certainly a good way to kill a language to get those who are literate in it to spend their time translating EUrocratese instead of writing anything that anyone could want to read. It serves well as a metaphor of the EU in general.

  • pete

    Bureaucracies are about creating jobs for middle class people.

    We can be sure that the number of people translating EU documents into Irish will increase over time as people want promotion to senior translator and so new recruits are required so they can have someone to boss about.

    In due course the number of translators will reach a level where some of them can be taken off Irish translation duties and assigned to investigating why no Nigerian. Russian or Chinese people are employed by their department and then ‘tasked’ with increasing diversity.

  • CaptDMO

    “Our” paperless society.
    Here’s the electronic copy. Here’s a link to Babble fish. Have a nice day.
    Not translated into Welsh or Irish? How about American?
    “…like pool balls. the harder you hit ’em, the more English you get out of ’em”, N’est-ce pas?

  • Pat

    Surely the point of having a language is to enable communication. If languages die out it is because people have found better practical alternatives.
    As to the Kabuki of insisting on proper form before an argument or anything else is considered, it demonstrates the priorities of those doing the insisting.

  • Sam Duncan

    “The gesture was appreciated in Dublin and left some in tears.”

    Of laughter, presumably.

    “The UK was never very good at this languages game and will drop it with relief once out of the EU.”

    Except in Wales, where the game is in full swing, and Scotland, where it has just begun. Our Police vehicles have recently had “Poileas” painted on the front, just in case the, er… 0% of the population which doesn’t speak English wonders what the big white van with flashing blue lights is. And what “Police” means.

    In truth, a measurable proportion of the Scottish population doesn’t speak English. But it doesn’t speak Gaelic either. It would be infinitely more practical to put “پولیس” on the cop cars. But this has nothing to do with practicalities.

  • Graham Asher

    I followed the link to the Irish Times article about the death of Irish, which is a damned sad thing, and found more to amaze me: “Reselling tickets for more than face value to be banned” … as an Irish MP said, “I have no doubt that for sports and music fans, this legislation will be a game changer”. Yes, it will, won’t it? Sports and music fans will no longer be able to get last-minute tickets. Lucky them!

    I once read an attempt by a serious economist to work out why ticket touting happens. Unfortunately I can’t find the link to it. The first question is: why do the event organisers not set the ticket price high enough to be just market-clearing? One theory is that they want to be able to reward cronies, employees and other insiders by giving them underpriced tickets which they can in some circumstances sell on.

  • Barry Dixon

    Thank you Natalie, for your wonderfully constructed English logic. I’ll save this for future reference.

  • Paul Marks

    How difficult can it be to translate “We Surrender” (the policy of Mrs May in relation to the European Union – and much else) into various languages?

  • Paul Marks

    By the way Natalie – I envy your visit to Japan.

  • Mr Ed

    Well let us demand royalties on the use of English in the EU after 23.00 hours on 29th March 2019 if they continue to use English at all. How about €60,000,000,000 per annum? The Irish Republic (and Malta, and Cyprus if it still hangs on to it) should drop the use of English as a mark of how ‘communitaire’ they really are once the UK leaves. And I know it’s a broken window fallacy, but those few Estonians and Finns who speak Irish Gaelic should have a great career ahead.

    I once read that Bernie Ecclestone was reported to have said that anyone who doesn’t speak English isn’t worth speaking to. Apart from perhaps the Presidents of Russia and China, and perhaps the Prime Minister of Japan, this has a certain ring of hard truth to it.

  • Paul Marks

    I repeat – there should be difficulty in translating “We Surrender” (the policy of Mrs May in relation to the European Union) in various languages. I do not see the point of these long policy documents from the government – the policy is “We Surrender” in relation to the European Union so that is all that needs to be said.

    The only hope is that the European Union (in some drunken orgy by its top officials) replied “we refuse to accept your surrender – you are out of the European Union”.

    I would be overjoyed if that happened – but is it at all likely?

  • Sam Duncan

    “I once read that Bernie Ecclestone was reported to have said that anyone who doesn’t speak English isn’t worth speaking to.”

    I haven’t heard that one, but he did once predict that Europe would be the Third World of the 21st Century. I remember thinking at the time that it was a typical Ecclestone exaggeration – he was trying to cajole Silverstone and Spa into upgrading their facilities at the time, as far as I recall, comparing them unfavourably to Sepang and Shanghai – but the more time goes by, the more it rings true.

  • staghounds

    Occam’s Razor says that the Government doesn’t want a Brexit, so it’s screwing it up, even the stupid translations.

  • SiamSam

    Where can we see examples of these poor translations? The Telegraph article is behind a paywall.

  • Fred Drinkwater

    “that not one human soul will read”
    A few decades ago my father was NASA representative on a US “Presidential” panel (they’re almost all “Presidential”) on the topic of airline flight crew requirements. Over the space of a year he went to DC a dozen times or so.
    When I asked him what he felt he’d contributed, what with his unparalleled flight experience and history of aviation accident investigations, he said, “I kept the final report to 30 pages. So maybe it will be read.”

  • bobbyb quote: I remember visiting a place years ago where the indigenous types had historically worn winter clothing made from dead seals…. But, when I was there, these people were all wearing big bulky North Face and EMS goose down expedition jackets.

    If you mean the Eskimos, I understand. When I lived in Alaska, I teased them that returning to their villages didn’t mean anything traditional. They’d laugh with their usual great sense of humor.

    Alas, that’s the great tragedy of the Eskimos. They were amazingly skilled at living in such a difficult environment. Yet when they came in contact with Western cultures, almost all its technologies were better. Down jackets are better than seal coats, rifles better than spears, snowmobiles than snowshoes, outboard motor boats than kayaks, and so forth. The result was a sad sense of loss. Their world was almost totally captured by ours. Only the food they love to eat remained.

  • milllo blooom

    Multiple languages is a bad thing not a good thing. Communication is key to long-term peace and prosperity. This seems so obvious to me that I cannot understand how anyone could see it otherwise. For example, learning a language is not something that can be done with minimal effort. Grammar rules may be simple, but the massive vocabulary that needs to be memorized takes a long time and much energy that could be better spent on constructive endeavors. Then there is the group conflict that occurs when people are balkanized based on the language they speak. Tribes and tribal warfare where the only difference is language. If you want to keep a culture then keep the art or clothing, languages are better left in the dustbin of history.

  • bobby b

    “Alas, that’s the great tragedy of the Eskimos.”

    But they’re warmer, better fed, better protected, better educated, and live longer and less precarious lives than they lived before they became Westernized, so I think the “tragedy” they’ve suffered is a fairly comfortable one. 😀

  • Outquiring Mind

    But with Britain gone English will no longer be an official language of the EU. Irish MEPs will be forced to learn a second language (almost certainly not Erse).

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    Have the Irish listed Erse as their tongue? Or do they use English in Europe?
    As for ONE World Language, that was the inspiration behind Esperanto- that one language would allow communication between different cultures. It doesn’t seem to have worked.