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Government translation budgets

A typically Iberian controversy is animating the opinion pages of the Spanish broadsheets. The Spanish parliament recently voted to allow any one of the five official languages of Spain to be used in the Senate (the upper chamber), and has employed interpreters to translate into Castillian Spanish from Catalan, Galician, Valencian or Basque. Spanish newspapers estimate the translation costs of this decision will come to 12,000 euros a day.

Linguistic differences  have  long been a divisive issue in Spain, above all in Catalonia and the Basque provinces.

Throughout  the Franco dictatorship, the authorities pursued an aggressive policy of linguistic homogeneity, with the result that the recognition of the  various regional languages of Spanish in the post-Franco constitution was one of its most symbolic and popular reforms, particularly in those areas which speak Castillian as well as another language.

But critics of the decision say that it is a waste of public money (particularly considering that all Spanish citizens, in theory, speak Castillian Spanish as well as they speak any other regional language), and will serve to widen linguistic faultlines yet further. Conservative opposition leader Mariano Rajoy rather pungently observed that something like this “would not happen in any normal country”.

He may be right, in the limited sense that very few other countries have as strong and influential a lobby for the promotion of regional languages, or the resources to ensure they are represented in the national parliament.

Significantly, in the US, government expenditure on translation has increased massively in recent years. According to a 2010 report by the Language Services research group Common Sense Advisory, the US Government has spent US$4.5 billion on language services over the past two decades; 47 percent of this total, US$2.1 billion, was paid out in the last two years. The report observes that this massive increase in spending “serves to highlight an important fact – effective communication across multiple languages is vital to the U.S. government both for its interactions with other nations and to serve the diverse base of constituents within its borders”.

It seems unlikely, however, that we will ever see a movement to allow other languages to be spoken in the US parliament. English has dominated ever since President Roosevelt’s famous assertion, that “we have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house”. English and Hawaiian are the dual official languages of Hawaii, whilst Puerto Rico recognises both Spanish and English, but these are among exceptions to the general preponderance of English across North America.

The European Union (EU) is at the other end of the scale of linguistic integration. Since its inception, the EU has supported linguistic diversity and equality, and promoted multi-lingualism. Consequently, the US’s expenditure, as a percentage, is a drop in the fiscal ocean compared to what the EU spends on translation and interpretation, which amounts to 1% of its annual general budget. According to the European Commission, the annual cost of translation and interpretation can be between 670 million and 1 billion euros, which pays for about 2,000 translators and 80 interpreters – per language, per day.

This approach is open to criticism, above all on grounds of expense. But its supporters argue that it guarantees the inclusion of all European citizens in the legislative process.

The African Union (AU), by contrast, chooses to concentrate on four ‘working’ languages, Arabic, English, French and Portuguese, although a recent protocol added Spanish and Swahili to this list. It focuses on increasing literacy and bi-lingualism over translation, and the AU-funded African Academy of Languages, promotes, amongst other initiatives, a ‘planned bilingual policy’.

All of which may be great news for the translation industry, but not so wonderful for taxpayers.

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