English without the English: What the Brexit Means for Translation
Much has been said about how the Brexit will affect businesses and ordinary people, but the dominant role that the English language currently enjoys in the EU has also been put at stake by some EU officials — and of course, this affects English translation.
Consider this: Since the UK joined the EU in 1973, English overtook French as the quasi-official language in the Union — even though, according to the rules, all official EU languages are considered equal. In order to become an official language, a member state needs to file a request and, to date, the 28 EU member states have registered 24 official languages. If a state has two, only one becomes official.
The cases of Ireland and Malta are of significant relevance here. These countries chose Irish and Maltese, respectively, as their official languages in the EU, despite English being co-official in those countries and widely used. So the question is — if the UK is the only country to have nominated English as their official language in the EU, what happens after Brexit?
English is clearly the first choice when it comes to communication between two Eurocrats or parliamentarians who do not share the same mother tongue. French is a distant second, followed by German. This does not change the fact that each EU member has the right to correspond in their own language and can expect an answer in that same language.
The vast majority of official EU papers are translated into all official languages. Each year, up to two million pages are translated for the European Commission alone. The EU itself employs more than 5,000 translators and interpreters, about half of which work for the Directorate General for Translation (DGT) in Brussels and Luxembourg. They translate all subject areas and document types, from laws (22%), or reports from member states (17%), to websites.
So what will happen with the established translation eco system after the UK has left the EU? There are opposing views, but common sense suggests that English will remain the main language of communication, even if for merely pragmatic reasons. It would take at least one generation for EU bureaucrats to gain the necessary fluency in French or German required to displace English, let alone to train a new generation of translators and interpreters that could work between these languages and the rest of official languages — e.g. Spanish, Danish or Latvian — in lieu of English.
It is therefore fairly safe to assume that the ratio of 80% of internal EU documents being written in English will largely stay the same in the short term. However, French, German and even other languages will have an evolution of their own and will presumably gain much more relevance.
The more interesting question to ask might be what kind of English will there be without the watchful eye of the English. What is written and spoken in the halls of the EU has long evolved into its own dialect, as the guide “Misused English Words and Expressions in EU Publications” written by Jeremy Gardner can attest to. According to him, there are many Euro-English quirks. For example, many Europeans use “control” to mean “monitor”, because contrôler has that meaning in French. The same goes for “assist”, meaning “to attend” (assister in French, asistir in Spanish). And there are many more examples of misuse, often from the influence of other languages, none of which prevent their users from understanding each other perfectly well. In the end, language is a vehicle of communication — and persuasion — so some transgressions are allowed, when they serve a purpose.
After all, Euro-English is a reflection of the political construct known as the European Union as a whole: Ever evolving with a life of its own, oblivious to static rules and full of quirky surprises.