Dozens of assiduous interpreters roamed around the European Council's halls alongside frustrated, exhausted political leaders until the early hours of Monday, July 13, as one of the toughest negotiations between the Greek government and the country's international lenders for a new bailout deal dragged on for hours. If it weren't for these professionals diligently searching for the right words among such a host of languages being used, how else could the politicians from 19 different countries communicate with one another?

“The burden of responsibility is huge,” said Vangelis Panagiotatos, who often translates Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schauble's statements on behalf of the Greek state broadcaster ERT. “Our biggest enemy is fatigue,” said Panagiotatos, who during that weekend's marathon negotiations, remained in the studio at the Aghia Paraksevi headquarters in northern Athens for 30 hours, anticipating (as was the rest of the country) an agreement between the two sides.

In the last few weeks in the run-up to those crunch talks, interpreters from all fields were recruited: three for every language in each European Institution's designated booth, some in broadcasting studios carrying out direct translations and others attending discussions between three or four parties, whispering into their assigned leaders' ear. Additionally, interpreters who contribute to leaders' communication via phone are a case of their own.

“The interpreter is informed ahead of time. He's on standby, at a desk, over a phone, taking notes and translating in a sequential manner,” said one professional who asked not to be named. Discretion, in this case, is an inviolate rule.


If you're of the opinion that the existence of Google Translate – and a dozen other online translation applications – means that you never have to bother becoming bilingual, guess again. While online translation apps are good for getting a sense of what's been typed out in a foreign language, it turns out that they're rather useless if you want to use them to hold a conversation with anyone.

In his latest video YouTuber Tom Scott takes us through the some of the problems that occur with online translation and points out that while Google Translation is certainly capable of matching words and concepts provided it has the contexts to work with, it misses out a lot of the subtle nuances of conversational language. Our favourite example in the video is when Scott points out that an American and an English person saying "that's a brave idea!" don't mean the same thing.



Private Eye, N 1392, 15th -28th May 2015, p. 31

Private Eye 1392

Copyright: Private Eye


German comedian and broadcaster Henning Wehn explores the fast-growing use of ELF - English as a lingua franca. Around the world there are an estimated 800m non-native speakers of English and the number is growing all the time.

Through talking to French, German, Brazilian and even American expats based in the UK, Henning discovers that just having the English vocabulary and grasping of grammar doesn't really help foreigners understand the nuanced, elliptical way that the British speak their own language.

From Japanese estate agents to French web entrepreneurs, non-native English speakers are baffled by the way the natives communicate using humour, obscure idioms based on cricket or rugby, and the understated codes of class and status.

Henning talks to academics and consultants in the fast-growing field of ELF and learns that it is rapidly developing a grammar and structure of its own - often not understood by those who have grown up speaking English.


Producer: Keith Wheatley
A Terrier production for BBC Radio 4.


In a recent speech outlining Britain’s anti-extremism strategy entitled A Stronger Britain, Built On Our Values, the home secretary, Theresa May, identified five “British values” that “are the means by which we have made our multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious society succeed”.

It is telling that nowhere in the speech did she acknowledge that Britain is, always has been and is likely to remain a multilingual society.

May returned to a well-rehearsed trope for politicians from across the political spectrum that to be British is to speak English. She now joins former Labour home secretary David Blunkett – who famously equated not speaking English at home with “the schizophrenia which bedevils generational relationships” – in putting language at the centre of the debate about the role of language in modern Britain.