Umberto Eco famously said ‘the language of Europe is translation’. Growing up in Ireland the fact that translation was also one of Ireland’s ‘languages’, one of its unseen powers, was never far from the surface: the father who had Irish to a certain degree; the switching from news to nuacht at the press of a button or turn of a dial; the sudden change in street signs and alphabets as you crossed the border; the Polish neighbours down the road getting to grips with English; making sense of the town and land names; reading features in the landscape from the words we had for them. You soon got used to the idea that translation, shifting between worlds – and the potentiality of those worlds – was everywhere around you.
Knowing a language gives you a sense of belonging to a place that those without it can never have. Knowing more than one – and being able to translate – allows you to live in a fabulous territory that only the bilingual/multilingual inhabit; a land those with only one tongue have no passport to enter. Ireland is blessed with its two languages.
Ireland may be an island on the periphery of Europe, wind-dashed, rain-ridden and sea-bound, yet it has form for being at the heart of Europe and translation here too had a role to play; think of those Latin versed saints and scholars and their contributions to the preservation and dissemination of knowledge centuries ago. Translation has played its role in Ireland across the ages; modern translation scholars on this isle have demonstrated the central position translators and interpreters held throughout Irish history in the interactions between the Irish and their conquerors.
Since joining the European Union the position of Irish has shifted slowly; now a completely official, full-fledged language of the Union, there is growing demand for those who can wield the language well, as the EU’s multilingual policy requires numerous categories of official documents (regulations, directives, judgments of the European Court of Justice, etc.) to be delivered in Irish. Despite everyone in the south learning Irish at school and increasing numbers in Northern Ireland taking it up (as recent census data revealed) demand for translation into Irish still outstrips supply. Into this void, of necessity, technology has stepped. Digitising language resources is enabling translation to be done by machines, yet possessors of the Irish tongue are needed to fix its frequent errors, to make the output comprehensible and useable. This new found status for Irish has also seen growing demand for rarer combinations. Does anybody know someone who can translate from Estonian to Irish and vice versa? Polish to Irish and vice versa? Here too technology is stepping in with language learning apps, social-media skilled múinteoirí, teagascóirí and word nerds drumming up interest in the language and producing a new set of Irish speakers not of Irish descent. The Irish language is becoming cool to learn. The question is how can we convince enough young Irish people to pursue the language with vigour to meet demand for it?
Thomas Osborne Davis famously wrote in the 1840s that ‘A nation should guard its language more than its territories—’tis a surer barrier, and more important frontier, than fortress or river’ and while Ireland is actively defending Irish, the language is shifting, like all languages do; growing, maturing, benefiting from exposure to other tongues, other world views. In recent years translation scholars have observed that the legal language of the EU is slowly altering the language of the member states; translation is influencing word choices and formulations and this is impacting Irish too. Words have power, often unseen, often imperceptible. Ireland may be on the imeall of Europe, but all edges blur. And edges – like translation – are fascinating places of intersection and exchange.
In partnership with the Irish Foreign Ministry as part of the Communication Europe Initiative, our Ireland EU 50 series is a selection of unique stories from writers from Ireland and elsewhere. The CEI was established in 1995 to raise awareness about the European Union and to improve the quality and accessibility of public information on European issues.