52% of the British public voted in the Brexit referendum for the UK to leave the European Union. Brexit will have a severe impact on most people’s work and lives. I decided to explore what Brexit means to translators in the UK and managed to catch up with Paul Kaye from the European Commission who kindly supplied Dragon Translate with an interview.
Paul Kaye – Language Officer – European Commission Representation in the UK
Interviewed by Wesley Gerrard, Dragon Translate, Wednesday, 20th July 2016
What do you do exactly?
I work as a language officer with the European Commission. I’m a translator seconded to the European Commission Representation in the UK, where my job is to help promote multilingualism, translation, the language industry, and language learning. There are two of us doing this outreach role, based in London. We do various activities, promoting these kinds of things in the UK, helping to promote them. There are also lots of other organizations working on the same lines.
How do you see Brexit changing the role of UK translators?
By UK Translators, what do you mean?
Well, translators based in the UK and UK national translators abroad.
Too early to say for that. I can answer questions about the European Union as an institution, as an organization – but I think, if I understand rightly, you’re asking me to talk about the impact of Brexit on the UK’s wider translation sector. Is that right?
Too early to say for that and I wouldn’t feel qualified, actually, so I can’t answer that one.
Ok. How, specifically, will the European Commission, as one of the largest employers of translators and interpreters, respond to Brexit.
Again, it’s slightly uncertain. What’s happening now is the UK has to trigger Article 50, as you’ll know from all the coverage.
And so, once that happens, the negotiations start. Until then the UK is a member of the European Union, well in fact, until the negotiations conclude and the UK withdraws the UK is a member. In one sense things just carry on as normal. In the translation service, the fate of UK nationals who are working for the EU institutions – that will be part of the negotiations between the UK and the EU – again too early to say for that. Once the UK does leave it will be highly unlikely that any new UK nationals will be eligible to work for the EU. So therefore, any new translators, translating into English, would not be coming from the UK, if they only have UK passports.
That’s quite strange because most translators translate from L2 to L1, into their primary language, don’t they?
Yes, but there are other English native speakers that aren’t from the UK.
Yes, of course – I guess there’ll be lots of Irish translators doing quite well?
Just going on from that question. How important a role will translators and interpreters play in Brexit negotiations? I imagine that work in your role is particularly busy at the moment.
My job is particularly focused on activities in the UK and that hasn’t changed. I don’t do any translation at the moment. I do a more of an outreach role and that hasn’t changed due to Brexit. Once Brexit happens we are assuming that our roles here, this job, doing outreach on language-related matters, will finish.
Would any of your colleagues have important roles to play in the Brexit negotiations ?
What do you mean by Brexit negotiations?
Well, the triggering of Article 50 – I imagine that Britain and its government will have a lot of complicated tasks in negotiating with Europe. Will there be a spike in the work for translators and interpreters?
So, We’re talking about civil servants who work for the EU institutions.
Well, we deal with translation into and out of all the different languages and all the combinations that come in. Whether the Brexit negotiations will add work for the translators into English…. I expect that a lot of the negotiations will be conducted in English. English is one of the main vehicular languages of the EU institutions. So a lot of the business is already done In English. I don’t imagine that the negotiations themselves will create more work for the translation departments working into English because our job is to translate documents from the other EU languages into English.
The European Commission is a big employer of translators. Will the UK set up any official body for translators in the wake of its EU Exit?
That’s a question for the UK government – we at the European Commission can’t speculate on that. The UK government already has translators. The Foreign Office has a small translation service, for instance. The Ministry of Defence has a translation service.
Are they likely to expand? Will there be more work opportunities for translators?
That’s a question for them and not us. You’re asking a question about something that might happen in the UK government to us and we are nothing to do with the UK government. British nationals who work for the EU translation services can’t go to the UK government and say “you need to set up a translation service and we’re going to do it for you”.
How will the use of the English language in the EU be affected by the United Kingdom no longer being present in the Union?
On what level do you mean? English is an official language of the European Union under Regulation No 1/1958 and there are 24 official languages. For that situation to change there would have to be unanimity among all the governments of the member states of the European Union. Once the UK leaves it would be up to the remaining EU member states to decide which languages they would want to use as the official languages.
I know in history French was often the language of diplomacy in European relations. Can you see a return of French as the major language of the European Commission? English is a good vehicular language. Are they likely to retain English?
You’ve got to distinguish between certain things. You’ve got the official languages of the European Union in which all the legislation of the European Union is published. English, French, Spanish, German but also Estonian, Bulgarian, Maltese, Irish. There are 24 of those. All the legislation the EU produces is produced in those 24 languages. In things like the European Parliament’s meetings there is interpretation into and out of 24 languages so everybody can use their language. For that situation to change.…in other words if English were to removed, there would need to be unanimity among all the remaining 27 member states. Those 27 remaining member states include Ireland and Malta which are countries where English is an official language nationally.
So for English to be removed as one of those 24 official languages…
It’s an unlikely situation….
…both of those countries would have to vote for English to be removed. In other words both of these countries have a veto.
Talking about the vehicular language. In its internal workings the EU institutions have three what we call procedural languages: English, French and German. So when we’re working internally and talking to ourselves if you like, officials talking to each other to do their work – English, French and German are those three procedural languages although in practice English predominates.
It seems to me – and I’m only speaking personally, it’s not the European Commission’s formal position, but just as somebody who works in the organization – that it’s unlikely that any other language will take that role any time soon….because of the fact that English is the main second language of most other people in Europe.
Do you have any fears for our education system in the UK with regard to foreign languages and its teachers?
No I can’t talk about that, unfortunately. The European Union doesn’t have what they call “competence” over education so that’s not a matter that the European Commission can express an opinion on. That’s fully the responsibility of the member state. What we do have a mandate to do is to promote exchanges in an educational context and to promote language learning through exchanges and experience, and we do a lot of work on that and we will continue to do work on that in this country until the UK is no longer a member. And after that perhaps that work will carry on in some form because it involves many other organizations, not just the European Commission.
What can be done politically within Britain, post-Brexit, to enhance the work of translators?
That’s not a question about the European Union per se. It’s a wider question. You might get someone from the ITI or CIOL to talk about this. It’s more a question for them I think as they have a better overview of the national landscape and perhaps more of a mandate to talk about the implications of Brexit for the translation profession in the UK.
It seems a real shame to me that the European Commission won’t be, most likely, taking on UK translators because it looked like a really interesting area of potential employment for translation students.
It is, yes. Part of my job involved going around universities and doing these career talks and trying to recruit people. We are now reconsidering what we do on that front. Because in all likelihood after Brexit there will not be any recruitment of new UK-only nationals. Of course there will be many UK nationals that also are entitled to other passports, other EU passports. I don’t know whether you are, are you?
I actually have a dual nationality which is UK/ New Zealand so that’s not much good.
But if you have an Irish grandmother, for example, or if you lived in an EU country for several years and were able to get a passport from that country. I think it may be that people start to think along those lines.
To work for the European Union as a permanent staff member you have to have a passport from an EU member state. If that doesn’t change then people with only UK passports won’t be able to be recruited to work for the European Union. But I think we anticipate there’s still going to be lots of need for translation into English within the EU Institutions.
Brexit’s a very difficult issue really. Midway through a translation degree it’s a bit of a shock because I wasn’t expecting it to happen. Throughout my life we’ve been part of Europe. Just envisaging a future outside of Europe seems a bit shocking. I suppose that foreign language skills will always gain you employment be it us being a political part of the Union or not.
I think that’s a message we’re trying to put across. Language skills are still going to be important, maybe more important for the UK. It’s now going to be having to set up new structures. It’s going to have to do all the trade negotiations. It’s going to have to go out itself and talk to these countries around the world instead of leaving that to Brussels with its staff of people, including linguists. It’s going to have to do all that itself. My take is that language skills are going to become more important or should become more important to the UK after this. We don’t know what the UK government’s position will be on that. We’ll have to see. I guess it’s got more important things to think about at the moment.
Ok Paul . Thank you for the time. I’m sure that other students and readers of the Dragon Translate blog will be interesting in hearing your views.