With its 24 official languages, the European Union is a veritable Tower of Babel, but the departure of the British raises existential questions about the place of English in their reputable translation services.
Thirty years ago, when she started working at the European Parliament, Alison Graves said "bonjour" when entering the lift. "French was the default language," she explains. She is British and heads the Parliament's multilingualism service
At the beginning of European construction, French, the language of diplomacy, was the most widely used language. But the situation changed, especially from 2004, with the enlargement of the EU to the east, which is traditionally not a very French-speaking part of the world.
Within the European institutions, where English, French and German are the main working languages, there are 24 official languages, which translates into 552 possible combinations of translation and interpretation.
"United in diversity" is the official motto of the EU, which prides itself on allowing all Europeans with this range of languages access to its institutions.
The work is enormous. Parliament's translation service produces 2.7 million pages a year which, stacked together, are almost the height of the Eiffel Tower. But in this diversity of languages, one language prevails: English.
In 2016 English was the language in which more than 82% of documents were written in the European Commission and more than 90% in the EU Council, according to figures published in a parliamentary report in France.
In the mid-1990s, the two languages were used in a balanced way in the drafting of Commission documents, with 45% in English and 40% in French, the report states.
The French newspaper Les Echos and the French magazine Le Point published an open letter to the future president of the Commission, the German, Ursula von der Leyen, from "a group of European officials".
These civil servants claim their "right to work in French" and point out that the use of a single working language leads to "a downgrading of the English used" and a "levelling down".
"At least 80% of our officials speak French as their first, second or third language," the Commission says. Of its 525 interpreters, 465 have English in their language combination and 426 have French.
Of all the institutions, the EU's Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg is the exception. Since its creation in the 1950s, the High Court has chosen French as its language of deliberation.
"It is only a habit and this can change. I can be said that this debate is always open," says Thierry Lefèvre, director-general for multilingualism at the European Court of Justice.
About 70% of translation work in the House is done from English and in most cases the source document was not written by a native speaker, explains Graves.
The Parliament therefore set up an internal service of "English experts" who correct the texts before any translation is done.
At the ECJ, Lefèvre fears that Brexit will make it difficult to recruit lawyers with perfect English. Irish translators would become highly valued, as would those from Malta or Cyprus, which have English as their co-official languages.
He wondered about the possibilities for other languages to gain ground after Brexit, because "by using a language, you are actually importing a value system, a culture, a world view".
"Why strengthen the language that accompanies English when the United States is turning its back on us and the United Kingdom is abandoning us," the head of the high court reflects.
Alison Graves points to an opposing movement. "Paradoxically, it could be that more and more people are beginning to speak English as a neutral language."
"Will we see the emergence of a kind of 'European English' or a “Desperanto” English, a mixture of 'despair' and 'Esperanto'," the British official suggests.
Certified translators in big demand after Brexit
31 January 2020: that date will be engraved on every British and European memory as that of the final departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union. This is a key date in many ways that certified translators are also involved in. The work of these certified translation professionals will increase if the European Union finally loses a member. Brexit announced in 2016
The long road to the United Kingdom's official separation from the European Union began on 23 June. It was in 2016 when, in a referendum, 52% of the British people who voted decided that they no longer wanted to be part of the European Union. More than three years have passed and strong disagreements about Brexit continue between the sector that is in favour of the exit and those that sees the many possible negative consequences of the break.
How would the exit affect certified translators? Experts agree that translation agencies and freelancers with the credentials to produce certified translations will see their workload increase after Brexit. Despite the fact that many wonder whether English will continue to be the official language of the European Union after the departure of the United Kingdom, the truth is that there will be a significant flow of documents including treaties, agreements, new legislation and contracts that will require certified translation.
Sworn translations required after Brexit
For example, Spaniards will need a sworn translation of their personal documents in order to remain working or studying in the UK when the new legislation in the country is finally sorted. Certified translators will certainly see a rise in the demand for the translation of residence permits, employment contracts, rental agreements, official translations of academic qualifications... and a host of other sworn translations that will be needed to stay in the country.
In addition to that, it is likely that in the years to come EU citizens will have to apply for a visa or permit in order to visit, as is now the case for Australia and the United States. With all the documentation that this entails, it would seem to be the case that the demand for certified translations from qualified individuals will increase.
In short, now that Brexit has happened, contact us for all your certified translation needs – we guarantee quality, acceptance and the cheapest price on the market.