Morale boost for Irish language as number of translators in Brussels rises

Increasing quantity of EU documents being translated into Irish. But who will read them?

When Tomaí Ó Conghaile first moved to Brussels in 2018, he was one of 20 Irish-language translators in the European Commission. Now there are 60, all part of a drive to intensify Irish translation. There will be yet more in the new year as Irish achieves “full status” as an official and working EU language.

“Here in Brussels Irish is just another language in a big mix and diversity of languages,” says Ó Conghaile, who grew up in Co Armagh and studied Irish and Spanish at Trinity College Dublin. A translator of web pages, he has a background in media and was a BBC radio presenter in Irish.

“Back in Ireland, sometimes certain people might have hang-ups about the language and it gets some negative publicity. But I have to say in Brussels you wouldn’t come across that negativity at all. Most Europeans are very interested and curious.”

Irish was an EU treaty language for decades, with only treaties translated, and was elevated to an official language in 2007, meaning all legal and other official documents would be translated. But such requirements were waived by way of a derogation, which ends only on January 1st. This represents the culmination of a years-long effort to build up Irish language expertise in the commission and other EU institutions.

The number of Irish-language staff in all EU institutions rose to 170 in November from 58 five years previously and there will be more than 200 from 2022. The volumes of translation are ever-increasing, tripling from 7,958 pages in 2016 to 24,563 in April 2021 and almost doubling again to 45,940 in October. Further increases are in prospect, as is a rise in the amount of Irish-language interpretation at meetings.

The cost is borne by the EU budget, to which Ireland is a net contributor these days. But neither the commission nor the Government would set out the money spent. The commission, which employs 2,000 translators, says the annual cost for all 24 official languages is €349 million, some 0.2 per cent of its budget.

Modernising of lexicon

Minister of State for Europe Thomas Byrne says “full status” is a massive boon for Irish, imposing new pressure to upgrade language skills and modernise a lexicon that many associate with the rural past. “This is huge for the Irish language there’s no doubt about it,” he says.

“People working in the Irish language in the European institutions [are] now involved in creating a new language for the modern age, just as English drafters are and French drafters are in terms of climate, in terms of digital, in particular the pandemic.

“To me this is now potentially a renaissance of the Irish language, helped by the European institutions and its official status at European level.”

But it’s not all plain sailing. As Byrne says, professional translation requires more than cúpla focal. The proficiency needed in some areas is akin to describing open heart surgery in real time.

One reason for delaying “full status” for so long was the lack of suitable candidates for the work. A commission report in June said the “main challenge” was the “small pool” of Irish-language experts. The 2022 deadline “gave rise to a sui generis endeavour in an unprecedented situation for the EU institutions to build up a new language regime with an existing member state”.

We're working with a language we love every day

Although Brussels advertised four times in six years for translators, lawyer-linguists and assistants, many candidates were not accepted. “The competitions attracted a relatively high number of applicants but they yielded only 10 successful translators and nine assistants in 2017, and 15 translators and three lawyer-linguists in 2019,” the report said.

Asked whether the lack of expertise reflects teaching flaws, Byrne says time was needed for new university programmes. “I think it’s given us an opportunity to make sure that we have people trained up to be able to do the work.”

‘Wasteful’ claims

But he adds that a greater effort will be required of Dublin. “Really we need to do a lot more here. That I think is going to be forced upon us really,” he says.

“This has to be an exact science. If there’s any problem at all it will result in problems with litigation or whatever, so there won’t be problems because we can’t have problems. That’s why people who do the work are educated and are trained to an extremely high level. But that does place a burden on us as well.”

Inevitably, many documents will remain unread. Still, Byrne dismisses any critics who claim the effort is a wasteful means of promoting the language. “I think it’s necessary if we are to have any self-respect and our European colleagues agreed to this. It’s happening and I think it will have a huge impact. There are other very small languages which are official languages,” he says.

“The average directive that comes out, very few people will read it. If there’s a mistake in one language version of it you can be damn sure someone will read it. That’s a fact. It will be equally valid.”

Ó Conghaile, the translator, dismisses the notion that producing unread texts could be dispiriting. “Of course some documents will be read more than others. But in terms of morale, it’s the opposite. We’re working with a language we love every day,” he says.

“I feel I am providing practical information for Irish speakers. In many ways, we’re also developing the language itself in terms of terminology, phrases.”

Micheál Ó Conchúir, a Brussels-based Kerryman, says the influx of Irish-speakers is very different from his early days in the city in the 1990s. “When I arrived here, you could count the number of native Irish speakers on one hand,” he says.

“When the politicians spoke first in the Irish, it gave a recognition. A lot of people around the EU would have assumed that Irish was a dialect of English. When they heard it spoken, it was like a revelation that Irish was its own language.”

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