Work of parliamentary polyglots

Editorial, Normal

The National, Friday 21st September 2012

POLITICS can be hard to make sense of at the best of times but, for parliamentary interpreters and translators, it is a full-time job.
At the European parliament, translation is a mammoth task.
Since 2007, there have been 23 official languages spoken by the European Union member states, each of which must be translated into the 22 other languages – a total of 506 possible combinations.
An army of 700 is employed to translate official documents such as agendas, draft reports, amendments, resolutions, written and oral questions and minutes. Interpreting – which refers to oral translation – requires up to 1,000 interpreters to be on hand for plenary sessions of parliament.
One of those linguists is Yorkshire-born Daniel Pashley, who is 39, and translates from
French, German, Swedish and Dutch into English.
Pashley did not come from a multilingual family, but fell in love with languages at school.
He went on to study languages at King’s College London and took a master’s at the University of Bradford. Throughout this time, he says he did not realise that it could be a career for him.
“I assumed interpreters had to be bilingual (brought up speaking two languages) but, when I read that was not the case, I realised this was what I wanted to do.
“I had always felt very European and wanted a job where I could make the most of that.”
Pashley insists that understanding politicians is no more difficult than understanding anyone else.
“There is a lot of technical language you have to learn but, on the whole, politicians are easy to understand and rather predictable. They use fewer colloquialisms than you would hear, say, in a soap opera or in a conversation on the street.”
Frustration can arise from the process of consistently giving voice to someone else’s opinions, he says, and it can take a while to learn to have confidence in your judgment of words and phrases.
“I remember once a delegate complaining about a policy he felt was being protected unduly, calling it the equivalent of a sacred cow. I called it a ‘holy cow’ by mistake. Once I realised I had to fight a fit of the giggles, which is the very last thing you want to subject your listeners to.”
However, he says the job has its rewards. “When I hear someone laughing at a joke the speaker has made in a language they don’t even speak, I know they’re laughing because of me and because I’ve done my job properly.”
But you don’t have to go as far as Brussels to find politics in translation.
In the devolved legislatures, Scots Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and Welsh are all official languages.
The Scottish parliament passed an act in 2005 to ensure it is accessible to Gaelic speakers and employs an officer who deals with Gaelic-language enquiries.
Stormont has two members of staff whose job it is to ensure the official record – the Northern Ireland assembly’s equivalent of Hansard – is available in Gaelic.
But speeches at Stormont and Holyrood in Gaelic are rare whereas, at Cardiff Bay, members frequently switch between Welsh and English in the chamber.
There are those who believe politicians at Westminster could do with some interpretation of their own.
The House of Commons is currently carrying out a pilot under which MPs have to provide explanations of any changes they propose to legislation, written in plain English. – BBC