Lost in translation: Britain’s got a Brexit language barrier

There are signs we don’t understand what our neighbours are saying


Yesterday Emmanuel Macron delivered a speech at the Sorbonne setting out his vision for the future of the European Union.

Macron proposed a multi-speed EU project, and what the FT called a ‘cascade of initiatives’ aimed at meeting the many challenges the Union faces. British journalists had their ears trained for anything the French President might say about Brexit. But Macron restricted himself to only one direct remark about Britain’s departure from the EU.

As the Guardian and the Telegraph saw it, he was leaving the door open for a UK re-entry, at some undisclosed point, probably way into the future.

The Telegraph reported Macron as saying:

“In this union rebuilt on intransigent values and an efficient market, in a few years, if it so wishes, Britain could regain its place (in the EU), which is why you haven’t heard me talk about Brexit this afternoon.

“Discussions are under way which don’t define the future of Europe. But in this revamped, simplified European Union I don’t rule that Britain could find its place.”

The Guardian’s report agreed, saying:

“Macron said he was deliberately not saying much about Brexit in his speech, but a reinvigorated EU with various levels of integration and cooperation was somewhere the UK may “one day find its place again”. He left the suggestion deliberately vague.”

But one UK paper published a report on Tuesday that didn’t agree with this interpretation. In fact, the Sun said that Macron’s vision would close the door on the UK’s return. It even reported his speech as specifically ruling out the UK’s return.

The Sun reported:

“And Mr Macron admitted that Britain would not “be able to find its place” in the new-look EU because it is integrating so fast.” Here’s a screen shot:

Taken from thesun.co.uk

After checking various reports today, I noticed that a new version of the piece with a different byline had appeared, removing any reference to this mistake. An aggregator, Europe Breaking News, captured a copy of the original article at 16:28 yesterday — at the moment you can read it.

It appears that the Sun had confused the second part of Macron’s remark — which is somewhat abstruse — with a closure on the UK’s involvement in the EU. I was pretty sure it was egregiously wrong when I first read it, but there was a problem: I didn’t trust my French enough to go over the speech, line by line, to check. Like a lot of other Brits, I don’t have sufficient language skills to accurately translate what Mr Macron said. I’ll be honest, that’s massively embarrassing. And frustrating.

If it was the Sun what got it wrong, it wouldn’t be the first time the paper found itself lost in translation. Last month, it was lambasted for publishing a German translation of an editorial about Brexit that was full of grammatical errors, arousing suspicion that the newspaper might have used Google Translate. The Washington Post, no less, called it gibberish.

It’s hard to imagine a French, Spanish, German or Italian newspaper deciding to publish an execrable translation of one of its editorials in English. (Let’s face it, it would be in precise, excellent English.) But news that a UK paper had done so generated only a flutter of interest, because it was par for the course.

The UK remains deeply unbothered by its ignorance of foreign tongues. In fact, Brits aren’t even embarrassed by their failure to learn languages. After all, the not-so mythical British tourist shouting in English at a confused foreigner is a source of self-deprecation, rather than outright shame.

Instead, some Brits regard their ignorance with pride, arguing it’s the result of the English language’s dominance in business and finance. In August, Simon Jenkins, the former editor of the Times and the Evening Standard, even used English’s dominance to argue that British schools shouldn’t bother teaching European languages at all.

But the UK’s problem with foreign languages is no longer a matter for insouciance — a good French word for our failure to care. With the terms of our Brexit divorce hanging in the air, there is a danger that bad translation could have disastrous consequences.

The British press has a long history of finding the negative in any remark made by Europeans, especially when they are talking about the UK — as Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator found when remarks he made to the Ambrosetti Forum were widely interpreted as a desire to educate the British about the single market. Barnier said his remarks had been misinterpreted on Twitter:

“I said: #Brexit = occasion to explain single market benefits in all countries, incl my own. We do not want to “educate” or “teach lessons”.

(It’s worth reading William Keegan’s account of what was said, here: https://www.omfif.org/analysis/commentary/2017/september/what-barnier-really-said/)

But even without journalism’s inexhaustible desire for conflict, reporting is harder when you’re bridging a language barrier. And any mistakes are even less likely to be rectified if your readership can’t check the source for themselves. According to Eurostat — and reported in the Guardian — 61 per cent of Brits are unable to hold a conversation in another language.

That is put in sharper relief by — unbelievably — something Boris Johnson said. Buried deep in his 4,000-word essay on Brexit, Johnson argued British influence in the EU project was dwindling because so few of the EU’s staff were British. What the Foreign Secretary didn’t bother to point out, however, was that this might partly be because too few British candidates have sufficient proficiency in a second language — a prerequisite for working for the EU.

And the grip on translation — or more to the point its vagaries — has other weaknesses, too. In the immediate months after the referendum result, the UK hoped the EU might weaken its rules on freedom of movement to accommodate British anti-immigration sentiment. But this was rebuffed by Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor.

As the BBC’s Damien McGuinness reported at the time, while Brits regard ‘no’ as a staging post, when Germans say no, they mean it. McGuinness’s insight was borne out: It took months for the UK to fully come to terms with the fact there would be no move in Merkel’s and the EU Council’s red line on freedom of movement.

If Brexit goes badly we won’t be able to argue it was all the fault of our murky understanding of German or French. But a better sense of precisely what the Chancellor — along with pretty much everyone in her government and in the Commission — was saying can hardly hurt.

As for me, I’m going to start learning French again — and Spanish. Maybe I’ll give German a try, too. Perhaps by the time European leaders are heralding the close of Brexit negotiations, I’ll be able to bypass translations and go to the source. I hope what I hear is good news.