From Englishman to British-born European

From Englishman to British-born European

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Independence after Brexit

I suppose going on holiday the day after the referendum result was know was probably the best way to cope with the entire Brexit mess. Swimming in the beautiful Ionian Sea and drying off on the beaches of Corfu, I had plenty of time to think about how Britain leaving the European Union is going to affect me and what I’m going to do about it. Theories of all kinds have been published about whether the United Kingdom will actually go through with the mandate to cut itself off from Europe provided by the referendum result, but in planning my future I have to assume that it will, and that all the advantages I have enjoyed as an EU citizen living in another country will end within the next couple of years.

Professionally, as I wrote earlier this year in a blog post anticipating the possibility of Brexit, I don’t think there will be a great effect on my work. It seems that Ireland, although its official language is Irish, will ensure that English remains an EU language, and it is already so well established as the main working language for the Community, understood by the maximum number of people, that this seems unlikely to change. Can anyone imagine, for example, the French or the Germans agreeing that all official documents shold be drawn up in the other’s language? Trade in both directions will also doubtless continue, although it will probably be reduced. In less official circles, too, the position of English as a lingua franca of tourism, for example, is unlikely to be threatened. Although travel to and from the UK could become more difficult, it hardly seems likely that the inhabitants of even a more isolated Britain will stop visiting the continent. Other translators in different specialist areas may be much worse affected, of course, and they have my every sympathy. To have your livelihood damaged by the whim of a perfidious electorate (unless, of course, you’re a politician, of course) is a cruel and undeserved blow.

I am also fortunate in that I am very little affected by the kind of exchange rate fluctuations unleashed by all the uncertainty over Britain’s future. I have few customers in the UK to find my services more expensive and I am not in the unfortunate position of some translators who have already lost hundreds of euros on invoices drawn up in sterling.


These are the logical, businesslike elements of the issue, but for me they cannot be separated from the other side of the matter. The fact is that I’m appalled and disgusted, not so much that there are British people who wanted to leave the EU, but that so many were content to make common cause with racists, xenophobes and other undesirables, ignoring the awful consequences this would obviously have (and is now having) in terms of attacks and insults directed at immigrants of all kinds in the UK. I want no part of it or of these people, and for this reason my reaction to the Brexit referendum is bound to be a disconnection from the country of my birth. Put simply, if this is what Britain is and does, I no longer want to be British.

This is not as straightforwards as it might seem. Residents of some European countries can happily take the nationality of the place where they live. Living in Spain, however, makes this a less easy option. It is, after all, a country where the festering roots of the old dictatorship still run deep, and an electorate almost as wilfully stubborn as Britain’s persists in voting for parties that have proved themselves corrupt and incompetent time and time again, as they did once again last weekend. I will certainly investigate Spanish nationality more closely, but the truth is I would much prefer the idea I have seen suggested of a general European citizenship. For the moment, I must wait and weigh up my options.

Whatever nationality I take, it will be a flag of convenience, adopted for my own personal advantage, not out of any kind of faith or belief. However much I may have once believed in the European Union as an institution, my enthusiasm has been seriously damaged by its recent treatment of the Syrian refugees, to take just one example. To regain my trust, it needs to be more about European people and less about nation-states. Nearer to home, in the past I have felt quite sympathetic to the cause of Catalan independence (after all, who wouldn’t want to be free of the utterly inept and incorrigbly interfering Spanish governments of the 17 years I’ve lived here) but Brexit has made me increasingly suspicious of any kind of nationalism. When it comes down to it, one flag is as good, or as bad, as another.

Culture, of course, is not nationalism. But my natural reaction to withdraw as far as possible from anything British and submerge myself  in the local language and way of life calls into question a whole series of apparently trivial lifestyle choices and habits. Last week, I found myself making a decision not to go to a bar while on holiday to watch England play football, unable to face the thought of noisy fans, half of whom probably voted alongside the racists and the xenophobes in the referendum. As it turned out, considering the team’s pathetic performance in the match against Iceland, I probably had a lucky escape, but it’s probably time to stop following them anyway. And what about cricket? And Wimbledon? Maybe I should even stop reading novels and watching films in English and listening to “The Archers”.


But the job I do means I can’t detach myself totally. Seeing your own use of language silt up with foreign expressions and turns of phrase or turn old fashioned is one of the perils of being an English translator living in a non-English speaking country. The only way to fight it is to continue to read and speak and listen to the radio in English. I also want my son to grow up bilingual (or in his case trilingual, because he also speaks Spanish and Catalan). It would be wrong to selfishly cut him off from a language that could be extremely useful to him later in life. A balance must be found, but I have no doubt it’s going to be a balance that’s less English than before.

My English may also be different. If I no longer feel British, what sense does it now make to try to uphold a “purer” version of the English language, as I have often proudly done, by resisting Americanisms, for example? Obviously, the variant of English I use in individual translations will be determined by my clients, but overall I can see myself becoming more open-minded and tolerant on issues where in the past I would have resolutely upheld the British line. The possible repercussions go on and on.

There are those already making their voices heard trying to coerce British people into giving way to a so-called “democratic verdict” discredited, in my view, by an unscrupulous campaign full of lies whose leaders have now almost all run away from the consequences of their actions by fleeing the political scene. Others patronisingly demand “understanding” of the Leave voters, as if turning racist, or at least tolerant of racists, was a natural consequence of having had a hard time. The much-prized national values of resignation, not making a fuss and pulling together in the face of adversity are being brought to bear. But what if these values were actually what was always wrong with Britain? What if they were partially responsible for the submerged and bitter resentment that led to the vote in favour of Brexit? Anyway, I don’t share those values and I won’t play that game. Maybe I was never so British after all.







  1. Chris Pellow

    I agree with you entirely. I feel there’s very little left of the Britain I knew as a child. I’ve always been proud to maintain my Britishness but right now my main feeling is one of shame.

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks, Chris. Never have I been so sorry to have someome agree with me.

  2. Adrian Woods

    Sadly in the same situation as a Sworn Translator in Madrid. My sons say I speak English like in the Monty Python films and, in spite of my attempts to go native, gardening and TV series based in London have caught up with me.

    What a mess having to to reapply for residence or a passport when I have been in Spain all my adult life!

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks for your comment, Adrian. I’m going to wait and see for the moment, but I’ll definitely have to investigate the possibilities.

  3. Herbert Eppel

    On a related note see

  4. Greta Holmer

    You have voiced my feelings exactly. I am a British translator living in the UK but grew up in Belgium with a Swedish husband who is also a translator. But the house is now on the market and we are moving back to Europe. We cannot continue living here with our children growing up in what now feels like enemy territory (we are in the Midlands and the vote in some places was as much as 70% leave!). They must be allowed to grow up as European citizens. I am also devastated by the possible loss of my European, silver-lining my children have their EU citizenship through their Swedish passport. But I have said many times that I would give up British citizenship if I could have a European Union one – I would be happy to have a blue passport like the dogs and cat. But the plan now is to move back to Belgium and wait until I can apply to be naturalised Belgian – can’t get more EU than that!

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks for your comment, Greta, and good luck with your Belgian citizenship!


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