The mælstrom unleashed by Brexit has given rise to questions about the status of the English language within the European Union. As the United Kingdom was the only EU member to list English as its official language, in theory it would be destined to disappear from institutional paperwork. The press is still awash with speculation on what would happen once Britain formalizes the decision to abandon the EU, but an Irish translator, who started working for the European Commission in the early days, has witnessed the change from French to English as new members were added from Central Europe, Scandinavia and the East. Some French are trying to reassert their language but linguistic barriers would render English impossible to avoid. Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges had said French had been relegated to being a haven for thinkers. Should there be a need to formalize the decision to keep English as one of the official languages of the EU, there could be an ironic solution: Ireland could come to the rescue. Not only it has given the language some of the best writers of universal literature, from Oscar Wilde to James Joyce. Bureaucratically, the Republic of Ireland, which has Gælic as its official language, could add English as a second official language. For Irish translators and officials, it would be a boon, as they would be in high demand. Still, there is a background of historical drama. “Be advised my passport’s green/No glass of ours was ever raised/to toast the Queen,” had written Irish poet Sæmus Heaney when he had taken offense for having his work included in an anthology of British poetry. But then again, when Heaney declined to be named Poet Laureate of the UK for ideological objections, he had clarified: “I’ve nothing against the Queen personally: I had lunch at the Palace once upon a time.”
There are fewer jobs as vital yet as unrecognized than that of interpreters and translators. Yet imagine for a moment a world of Aristotle in classical Greek alone. For those who do not speak it, and neither know Hebrew or Aramaic, the Bible would remain more of an impenetrable mystery. And we could only imagine what the One Thousand and One Nights were about. For the most part and for the most important books of all times, we do not know the names of those who rendered these magisterial words and ideas, which set the course of civilization and history, to wider audiences. It is part of the job description: the translator’s hand and prominence has to be as inconspicuous as possible as he renders the original into the end language as if written or spoken by the author himself. Sadly, however, it does not always earn the appreciation of bean counters, if not the public. As Tim Parks says in “The Translation Paradox,” an Italian publisher’s staff had been advised by the accountants in the 1990s to hire less expensive translators, for their research had showed that readers could not tell a good translation from a bad one. Indeed, if you are reading a translation it is probably because you cannot read the original. It is perhaps why it is so important to get it right, and that there are permanently revisions to the translations of everything from the Holy Scriptures to scientific papers, because the devil is in the details, or in a bad translation.
Mankind was punished with a confusion of languages when it tried to reach heaven by building the Tower of Babel. Google and Skype are helping men bridge the barriers that go back to biblical times with their translation tools. A lot will still be lost in translation but we are certainly in a much better position to reach out to each other, if not heaven.