Potential recruits are being given remedial coaching to bring their abilities up to standard, while a Eurocrat has been dispatched to scour Britain full-time for anyone who can speak foreign languages well, and to encourage schoolchildren to study them.

The article appears to apportion some of the blame to the decreasing number of children studying languages at GCSE level. I wrote a post in June about a petition to the Prime Minister to save foreign language provision in UK secondary schools, but I would be surprised if the Government’s relatively recent (2004) decision to remove languages from the list of compulsory subjects at GCSE was having such a rapid effect.

I also think there must be more than meets the eye to this story; I can only surmise about the reasons for this seemingly dire situation, but perhaps the EU needs to target its recruitment campaigns at more highly qualified linguists in the UK. The prospect of working as a translator at the EU is a very much sought after ideal for modern language undergraduates who as yet may have little other knowledge about translation as a profession. I must say that whilst I was an undergraduate I had to do a great deal of individual research into what being a professional translator was really like. Many a day was spent in the Cardiff University careers centre reading up on translation as a career, but it wasn’t until I was halfway through my MA in Translation at Westminster University that I began to fully understand what my chosen career would involve, and that it wouldn’t necessarily have to involve moving to Brussels. The public perception of translation as a career is still largely that of a career in the EU after a short spell studying for a BA in languages, but this is a very narrow impression of the profession indeed.

Consequently, perhaps a large number of the applications are from enthusiastic but fundamentally untrained graduates who hanker after the ‘glamour’ of working at the EU, perhaps not fully appreciating the level of skill and precision required by the entrance tests. Moreover, I have never noticed a requirement in the EU recruitment campaign for any form of specific training in the field of translation (for example postgraduate studies such as the Chartered Institute of Linguists Diploma in Translation), and it is widely accepted these days that, unless they already have industry experience, most new entrants to the profession will need to undertake this type of training in order to reach an adequate standard.

The EU recruitment campaigns are also usually quite low-key in this country. If they want to target a different class of translator then perhaps they need to create more of a fanfare about their recruitment campaign, whilst also focussing on the professional associations such as the ITI and the universities that train translators to a professional level.

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Reported shortage of decent English translators for the EU, really?

I read this interesting article on the Times Online this morning, taken from the Sunday Times. We all know August is the silly season for the media, and although this particular story isn’t ‘silly’ in the traditional sense, it did strike me as a little bizarre (particularly in light of the daft reader comments that follow it). Apparently the standard of English native speaker linguists applying to the EU’s forthcoming recruitment campaign is so poor that the EU is having to recruit non-native speakers instead. I quote:

Brussels rules state that translators into English should have the language as their mother tongue. British standards are so poor, though, that the EU has taken emergency measures.

Potential recruits are being given remedial coaching to bring their abilities up to standard, while a Eurocrat has been dispatched to scour Britain full-time for anyone who can speak foreign languages well, and to encourage schoolchildren to study them.

The article appears to apportion some of the blame to the decreasing number of children studying languages at GCSE level. I wrote a post in June about a petition to the Prime Minister to save foreign language provision in UK secondary schools, but I would be surprised if the Government’s relatively recent (2004) decision to remove languages from the list of compulsory subjects at GCSE was having such a rapid effect.

I also think there must be more than meets the eye to this story; I can only surmise about the reasons for this seemingly dire situation, but perhaps the EU needs to target its recruitment campaigns at more highly qualified linguists in the UK. The prospect of working as a translator at the EU is a very much sought after ideal for modern language undergraduates who as yet may have little other knowledge about translation as a profession. I must say that whilst I was an undergraduate I had to do a great deal of individual research into what being a professional translator was really like. Many a day was spent in the Cardiff University careers centre reading up on translation as a career, but it wasn’t until I was halfway through my MA in Translation at Westminster University that I began to fully understand what my chosen career would involve, and that it wouldn’t necessarily have to involve moving to Brussels. The public perception of translation as a career is still largely that of a career in the EU after a short spell studying for a BA in languages, but this is a very narrow impression of the profession indeed.

Consequently, perhaps a large number of the applications are from enthusiastic but fundamentally untrained graduates who hanker after the ‘glamour’ of working at the EU, perhaps not fully appreciating the level of skill and precision required by the entrance tests. Moreover, I have never noticed a requirement in the EU recruitment campaign for any form of specific training in the field of translation (for example postgraduate studies such as the Chartered Institute of Linguists Diploma in Translation), and it is widely accepted these days that, unless they already have industry experience, most new entrants to the profession will need to undertake this type of training in order to reach an adequate standard.

The EU recruitment campaigns are also usually quite low-key in this country. If they want to target a different class of translator then perhaps they need to create more of a fanfare about their recruitment campaign, whilst also focussing on the professional associations such as the ITI and the universities that train translators to a professional level.

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13 Responses and Counting...

  1. MM

    August 11, 2008

    This was my reaction too, Philippa. You are quite right about the lack of experience being a particular factor, although I wonder why native speakers of other languages should do better there? I also have the feeling they are a bit confused between freelance and employed translators, and on top of that I can’t see what specific ‘forthcoming recruitment competition’ is being referred to.

  2. philippa

    August 11, 2008

    Hi Margaret, I’ve just read your post about this – glad to see someone else questioned the quotations used in the article too. I agree that there is probably some confusion between freelance and employed translators, which is again another indication of a lack of public knowledge in the UK about the realities of the translation industry.

    Btw, I particularly liked your Monty Python reference!

  3. Sarah D

    August 11, 2008

    Snap – I commented on this article too earlier today, but took a slightly different tack.

    Good points on the role of the recruitment and training process in contributing to the shortage. I started the application process many years back and it was pretty tortuous. It drags out over months and even years – I’d decided that it wasn’t for me long before I got anywhere near completing the process. But they do seem to have done a good job of trying to make this less painful of late. The UK Permanent Representation to the EU have long offered excellent support to would-be applicants from the UK (http://www.ukrep.be/working.html), which is more than can be said for many other member states. Plus, it’s exactly the same procedure for every member state, so all in all it seems hard to lay all the blame there.

    There’s no doubt the roots of the problem go back much further than the government’s 2004 decision to remove languages from the list of compulsory GCSEs. But then if I remember correctly, the government’s decision was seen as only the final nail in the coffin. Personally, I can’t help but think that the overall tendency towards Euroscepticism in the UK has a lot to do with putting people off applying in the first place. There’s really only so many articles one can read about how “faceless eurocrats” are wasting billions on translation [snort!] into random and/or little known languages [outrage!] in far distant Brussels [snigger!] before it starts to have an effect on young people and their attitudes towards languages in general.

    But then I’m probably biased: my formative language-learning years were set to an extremely pro-European backdrop and I know for sure that I wouldn’t be a translator today if I’d grown up in the UK. (My younger self might say for the better – but that’s another story!)

    Whatever the reasons, I think there’s no doubt that the shortage exists. I clearly remember representatives from various EU and UN institutions warning about the shortage of native English speakers at various conferences I attended as far back as 2002. That the shortage exists at all is such a shame. It does nothing to enhance the profile of professional, native English translators and plays to the very worst stereotypes of English speakers generally. A sad day for us all :(

    Now, what can we as translators do to help fix it??

  4. Sarah D

    August 11, 2008

    PS I can’t even bear to read the comments that follow. I know they’ll make me furious…

  5. Sarah D

    August 11, 2008

    er… sorry, I should clarify: I meant the comments that follow the Times article, not your post Philippa!

    Memo to self: no more comments after 9.30pm at night…

  6. philippa

    August 11, 2008

    Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for offering an insight into your own experience of applying to work for the EU – it really brings an extra dimension to this issue. It is indeed very sad to see that yet again English native speaker translators are being reflected in a poor light.

    I dare to dream that the tide is turning in the UK, with more school children choosing languages. I think it might be….very slowly. The professions of translating and interpreting just need more and more positive publicity in order to help to counteract the shortages and/or apparent poor quality. I think the ITI might have organized career talks at some universities in the past, but perhaps it’s time to reach out to primary schools?!

    Yes, the comments on The Times article just beggar belief. Despite growing up in the UK, I’ve managed to avoid too much exposure to the whole ‘faceless eurocrat’ way of thinking (prob by steadfastly ignoring certain factions of the press!) and I’m always astounded to see or hear such ridiculously anti-EU views.

  7. […] of you who last month read about the reported short of decent English translators for the EU may be interested to listen to this interview on Radio 4’s PM programme aired yesterday. […]

  8. […] gone?’, by Klaus Ahrend, Fiona Harris and Terry Clough of the DG Translation. I wrote a blog post a while ago about this, when the problem of sourcing talented into-English translators first arose […]

  9. Justine Raymond

    August 11, 2008

    Hi Philippa

    Interesting post and I agree with what others have said about the overly long and drawn out process that occurs when applying for an in-house position at the DGT.

    Furthermore, it is my understanding that, until very recently, the EU had an ageist policy with regards to hiring. When you think about what the EU is meant to stand for, this was ludicrous. Aside from the obvious fact that the EU were most probably shooting themselves in the foot, as to be a good translator takes time, so those with a lot of experience in their late 30s and 40s were immediately ineligible to apply. However, the fact that the legislation to reverse this policy is recent does bring in to question how efficient EU policies and actions are in real terms.

    Another obstacle in getting people on board could be the fact that they stress the need for the applicant to possess multiple languages. I’ve nothing against polyglots (indeed, I wish I was one!), just that, isn’t it sometimes better to have a few people who are specialists in a certain language combination? Language interference is then further reduced and specialism, i.e. in the language itself, is increased. I feel I would really like to apply to work at the EU, but with such a stipulation in place, this is impossible. Am I right in thinking that the institution (like many!) could do with a shakeup?

    I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    Just

  10. philippa

    August 11, 2008

    Hi Just,

    Thanks for your comments. Your understanding of the situation is roughly the same as mine. I believe they do require applicants to offer more than one language combinations – although I think they might be rethinking this in light of receiving a low number of suitable applications.

    I wasn’t aware of any ageism on their part, and I don’t recall their calls for applications specifying any particular age restrictions. But I was under the impression that the vacancies are entry-level (this may be completely the wrong impression!).

    I’m very much aware that the DGT is taking these things on board, with Fiona Harris, currently on secondment to the DGT Field Office in London, discussing these issues at last year’s ITI conference (see – http://iti-conference.org.uk/conference-2009/content/view/57/30/).

    Philippa

  11. Edwina

    August 11, 2008

    Interesting to read that you studied at Westminster. I’m thinking of embarking on a career as a translator and wondered what your thoughts were on the various masters courses available. I see you studied at Westminster but I was concerned that in terms of university rankings generally it doesn’t sit on top of the list. Does Westminster have a particularly good reputation in the translation and linguistics area? Were you happy with your course?

  12. philippa

    August 11, 2008

    Hi there,

    I think that when it comes to postgraduate study, you have to look at the university’s rating and reputation for the individual subject, rather than its overall university ranking. Westminster is certainly one of the most highly regarded universities in the translation industry, and has first-rate links with the profession. The course has a fairly vocational focus, whereas some of the other MA courses are slightly more theory-focused, so it really just depends on what you are after. To answer your question: yes, I was very happy with the course I chose :)

  13. Will

    August 11, 2008

    I think their selection process isn’t the easiest either. Even with the needs for experience as others have mentioned, most of the time the EU is advertising for trilingual translators (mother tongue, then two foreign languages). I think they would have marginally less trouble finding people if they allowed people who have chosen to specialise in one foreign language to apply too!

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