A Proposal for the European Union

Umberto Eco once observed that “The language of Europe is translation” (Eco, 1993). This witty aphorism seems particularly true for international science and scholarship, where creative work, especially in the social sciences, is still largely pursued in the various national languages, while research results are predominantly published in English for the international audience. Today, the global academic community faces a twofold obligation: it must encourage the survival of small and medium-sized languages of scholarship, even as it must promote publication in mediating language(s) in the service of an effective and prompt international exchange of ideas. The recognition of both parts of this dual duty forms the official, if hardly undisputed, policy of the European Union today, which insists on the concurrent need to support a multilingual Europe and to champion English as the lingua franca of the community. Not infrequently, this policy prevails at the cost of provoking fierce dissent at various political and linguistic forums (Darquennes, 2010; Romaine, 2013; Gazzola and Grin, 2013; Bonotti, 2013). Jenő Kiss advocates a “judicious bilingualism” as a realistic scenario based on Dutch, Danish and Hungarian examples (Kiss, 2009, 71). The problem for scholars with publishing in small or medium-sized languages lies in the haphazard or downright impossible integration of research findings into the corpus of international scholarship, which inevitably leads to a severe handicap in the global competition. To address these problems in a realistic and functional manner, I propose a European programme under the auspices of the European Union for translating academic work into English, originally published in languages, especially “small” languages, other than English. European academia would also most definitely benefit from similar programmes to facilitate the translation of key research into French and German.

The tools and media of international communication that dominated the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had lost their pre-eminence by the second half of the twentieth. Latin, in particular, had been demoted even in the Church, and positively dethroned as the age-old standard in humanities teaching.

English rose to prominence after the Second World War as the primary language of all international communication and, specifically, of science (Kaplan, 1983; Crystal, 1997; Fishman, 1998–99). A number of factors contributed to this rise, including the linguistic heritage of the former British Empire, the (in part) US–British victory in the Second World War, the ensuing expansion of the United States’ sphere of influence and, more recently, the skyrocketing of international and interpersonal communication needs and the decisively American impetus behind the global information technology revolution. Moreover, English itself has a number of inherent features that render it eminently fit for the role of the international language. Most importantly, it purportedly does not require an extensive vocabulary or more than a bare-bones command of grammar for successful communication (Mesthrie and Bhatt, 2008; Grzega, 2010, 798–800).

Side by side with the proliferation of varieties of English, the explosion of global communications in the 20th century triggered an opposite trend toward standardisation. The phrase “World English” first cropped up in the 1920s, to be followed after the Second World War by “international English”, often labelled “global” in today’s terminology.

Although the number of native speakers of English is no more than about 328 million, hundreds of millions more use the language on a daily basis. Some global languages boast more native speakers than English, and German and French both have rich histories within Europe as languages of science, culture, politics and commerce. However, within the global academic community there can be little doubt that at the present time English is the international language of choice for scholars, whether or not the United Kingdom remains within the framework of the European Union. Even in the face of much study and debate, the choice of English remains the default language for scholars in Europe’s smaller countries. Indeed, the role of English as the lingua franca of our age has been studied and debated extensively (Crystal 2003; Grzega, 2010, 800–804).

Do publications in a smaller national language stand any chance of sharing their findings with the academic community of the world at large? The answer, obviously, will vary from discipline to discipline. Publications in the natural sciences tend to be shorter to begin with, and many only require familiarity with relatively few expressions in addition to the professional terminology, much of which remains rooted in ancient Greek and Latin anyway. By contrast, understanding studies and essays in the humanities and the arts requires a far more comprehensive grasp of the language in which they are written.

Academic books and journals continue to be published in the national language as well as in English in practically all European countries. As Kiss put it succinctly, “Most European intellectuals envision the future of academia based on a bilingual model in which the vernacular is complemented by English as the lingua franca of academic exchange” (Kiss, 2009, 70). The European Union subscribes to essentially the same view, even if this endorsement is often no more than tacit or nominal (Romaine, 2013, 120–124; Bonotti, 2013, 200–201; Gazzola and Grin, 2013, 100–104). EU institutions spend less than one per cent of their budget on language services (Gazzola and Grin, 2013, 100). The Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka compellingly raises the possibility of social class differences underlying the tension between the preference for English among international (and national) elites and the propensity of national majorities for using the vernacular (Kymlicka, 2001).

As is often the case in small or medium-sized linguistic communities, academic publication in Hungary and by the Hungarian-speaking minorities in neighbouring countries continues to rely heavily on the native idiom. Despite this tendency to use Hungarian as the default language of scientific and scholarly discourse, the overwhelming majority of Hungarian researchers are perfectly aware that they must publish their findings in English if they want to show up on the radar screen of international academia and take part in research competition.

In fact, the necessity of international languages in academia is a reflection of that necessity’s impact on the vernacular. Speaking of the relationship between the Hungarian language and the European Union, Kiss has argued that “linguistic competitiveness is part of the ability to compete as a society” and that “nothing less than the preservation of the vernacular as a competitive idiom is at stake” (Kiss, 2005, 13, 22; Kiss, 2009, 68–70). For a variety of historical reasons, the “export” of Hungarian academic writing in English has been severely handicapped from the outset. In groundbreaking studies based on the findings of a survey examining the foreign language competence of members of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Péter Medgyes played a pioneering role in exploring the political and professional factors that have led to the lag of Hungarian academia (a lag of admittedly different magnitude in the natural sciences and in the humanities) compared to international standards (Medgyes and Kaplan, 1992; Medgyes and László, 2003).

One of the most severe hindrances contributing to this lag is the financial burden of translation. Publication in English or other international languages, which in this corner of the world routinely implies outsourcing translation, has become a prerequisite of, and often an insurmountable obstacle to, viable research work in Hungary. Current rates charged by professional translators can be as high as up to 4 Hungarian forints (HUF) per character (for international rates, see Hendrickson et al., 2013). This means that the costs of having a typical paper (say 40,000 characters) translated and proofread may amount up to HUF 240,000 or ca. EUR 750–800. Assuming the same rates, having an average book-length study (say 800,000 characters) translated and proofread (the latter, typically, at half the rate of translation) may thus carry a price tag of up to HUF 3,200,000 and HUF 1,600,000, respectively – a total expense of up to HUF 4,800,000, or well over EUR 15,000 at current exchange rates. This is about the annual net salary of a senior full professor in Hungary.

Adding to these woes, the English of academic translations from the Hungarian practically never reaches native speaker standards, barring precious few exceptions. No translation, even if supervised by a native speaker, can be truly successful unless the scholarly message, originally formulated in the national language, connects with the target, so to speak, and thus manages to blend in with global cultural discourse. Publications in the humanities, including the social sciences, are particularly vulnerable in this regard. Hungarian researchers do not possess the resources to finance the translation of their work on their own, and most of them lack adequate command of world languages to use one of them as the original language in which to write their own papers and books. Universities and research institutions, sponsored by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences or otherwise, hardly ever undertake to shoulder the costs of translation. Moreover, the majority of authors do not have sufficient competence to check the quality of the translation and edit it as needed to better fit their intentions. Even the best foreign-language professional journals published in Hungary seem to be marred by a trace of foreign accent.

Most European nations are in the same boat. It is for these reasons and others that the EU must consider developing a programme directed specifically towards facilitating the translation of academic work in Europe. Envisioned as an initiative funded annually from a high-priority appropriation within the EU budget, the programme would create a massive international endowment for supporting the translation into international languages of vital academic papers and books published by researchers in member states of the Union. Translation grants would be awarded by international tender, with the applications evaluated by one or more professional boards of trustees. Reckoning with 20 books and 100 papers from each of the 28 member states where English is not the official language, I would estimate the requisite annual budget at EUR 100 million. This figure is of course a rough approximation, to be fine-tuned as the programme is being developed in its specifics, and allocated to reflect actual demand and the relative importance and merit of each qualifying publication. The programme could be designed and submitted to the European Union and Science Europe by the national academies of sciences. If successfully implemented, the initiative could over time be expanded into a global programme, possibly overseen by UNESCO.

It goes without saying that, irrespective of the fate of this international programme proposal, the scientific institutions, the academic establishment and the education system in Hungary and in all other “smaller” countries will still have their work cut out for them. Notably, there is an urgent need to establish national translation funds to help professional publishers and journals bring out relevant material in international languages. It would be equally crucial to devote extensive resources to improving foreign language teaching, the system of foreign study grants, and the university-level training of expert translators in the member states. This is the only way to gradually equip scientists and scholars in EU nations with the self- reliance necessary to participate in international academic discourse efficiently and to the fullest of their potential.


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