Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Lingua Franca

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With the increasing prominence of China in global business and politics, there is increasing discussion about whether or not there will be a corresponding rise in the ubiquity of Mandarin.  Indeed many have begun to speculate that Mandarin will eventually become the new “lingua franca.”  This will be the first of two posts on the subject of the Lingua Franca.

A lingua franca is a bridge language, or a language used to facilitate communication between to speakers who do not share a mother language, particularly when the language of communication is not one of the speakers’ mother languages. For example, one can consider French a lingua franca when it is used by a native Italian speaker and a native Spanish speaker to communicate.  When one hears that French was “the language of diplomacy” this refers to the fact that in European diplomacy French was the lingua franca for diplomats.

Despite how the term “lingua franca” appears to English readers, the original lingua franca was not French.  It was in fact a pidgin language (a simple language that develops as a way for two or more groups to communicate when they do not share a common language) based mostly of Italian, but eventually interpreting Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, French and Turkish elements.  The original lingua franca was used not in northern Europe, but around the Mediterranean coast.

So a lingua franca is simply a common language used to communicate between to people who do not share a native language.  There is no one “lingua franca,” but instead it is simply a term that can be used to describe any common language, dependent not on history, but on usage.

In next week’s post we will discuss the current “global” lingua franca, and the possibility that it’s place could be taken by Mandarin.

Court Interpreter Cuts in the United Kingdom won’t Pay Off

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The BBC recently reported on new cuts to the court interpreter budget in England and Wales.  The Courts switched from a freelance contract based system, with a large national register, to all interpretation services being solely provided by a private agency, Applied Language Solutions.  The plan was intended to save about £40 million.

Payment to interpreters, has, as a result, been seriously slashed.  In addition to being paid less for services provided, interpreters no longer get travel expenses covered.  In response, over 60% of the interpreters have refused work due to the now low compensation.

This has serious repercussions.  It is a fundamental responsibility of any government to ensure the proper and fair execution of justice.  Court interpreters are essential to that process. The BBC has numerous stories of problems arising as a result of this.  A large and diverse registry is very important as it is sometimes hard to find interpreters of more obscure languages.  Even in Vancouver, there are no certified Italian interpreters, and Italian is no Fulani.  Needlessly limiting the pool of interpreters is seriously damaging.

Translators and interpreters are too often dismissed and marginalized and I think this comes from a lack of understanding of what we really do.  As the world becomes more interconnected the need for translators and interpreters will only grow, and treating translators and interpreters as an easy place to slash will only yield false economies.

I predict that any savings from these cuts will be eaten up by new problems the cuts have created.  These include costs associated with longer trials and delays due the unavailability of interpreters, mistrials due to poor or improper interpretations, and work that has to be done twice because the quality was so weak the first time.

International Financial System Pushed Closer to Collapse by Late Translations

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As you may know, the various parties which make up the ruling coalition of the Greek government have been in marathon talks to agree on new austerity measures.  The austerity measures are necessary to receive a new bailout from the “troika” of the European Central Bank, European Union and International Monetary Fund.  This bailout is necessary to help prevent the Greece from defaulting.

The Guardian UK has been providing near constant updates on the talks and reported that talks were in fact delayed 4 hours due to the translation of a draft agreement being late.  The proposals are written in English when the Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos meets with the troika and are then sent to the other leaders of the ruling coalition.  Of the three main heads of the ruling parties, two, George Papandreou and Antonis Samaras, were both educated at American universities have a strong command of English.  However the third leader, Georgios Karatzaferis, was not educated in America and his grasp of English is not as strong.  Consequently, any proposals have to be first translated into Greek for Karatzaferis.

We’ve talked before about how essential translation can be to diplomacy, and the effects gaffes can have.  One would think that when it came to such important matters as a Greek bailout, they could get there translations done on time.  On the other hand when the fate of Greece stands on the interpretation of a single line in the agreement, it’s probably worth it to double check your work.