In or out?

In or out?

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 Will Brexit affect translators?

Translators are probably more internationally minded than most groups. Working with languages usually means opening up to different people and other cultures. Learning languages often means living and working in other countries and is difficult to do without coming into contact with people from different backgrounds to your own. Whether it’s the profession that creates the attitude or the attitude that leads to the profession is a moot point, but it makes it hard for us to understand those with closed minds, narrow points of view and negative attitudes towards anything and anyone beyond their national borders.

So when I was in England over Easter I was greatly affected by the debate going on in the media, in the pubs and wherever I went on the chances of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, a possibility rather tiresomely termed Brexit. In case you’re not from Europe, or have been living in a hole in the ground for the last year or so, on 23 June the UK will vote on whether it wishes to remain in the European Union.

This is an issue that would once have excited me greatly. I believed, and still believe if you press me, that it is ludicrous that Britain should not be part of the great association of European countries. However, such is the pressure from certain political elements and the ridiculously biased right-wing press that there is a distinct possibility that the country will end up leaving the European community. To be frank, I no longer care anything like as much as I did about whether it does or not. For one thing, the writing has been on the wall ever since the Labour Party so spectacularly blew the opportunity to secure ties with Europe by entering the euro in the early years of this century. To me the single currency, for all its faults, has always seemed to be what will ultimately bind the countries that really belong in the Union together. But Britain chose not to follow this path and has been drifting slowly but surely away from Europe ever since. It’s a fact that begins to be hammered home every time you cross the “UK Border” (does any other country feel the need to stress the fact you’re entering it so crudely every time you arrive at an airport?). It’s something that’s sadly evident in the decline of teaching of foreign languages in British schools and universities and in the stubborn belief among so many of my compatriots that by speaking slowly and shouting they can be understood by anyone in the world. And, just to take an example from my recent trip there, the fact that a respected broadsheet newspaper can give such credence to claims that the European Union is deliberately allowing its most wanted criminals to enter Britain as to publish the story on its front page, as one did the day I returned home, would beggar belief if this kind of nonsense wasn’t appearing somewhere or other every day. Faced with this all-pervasive attitude and the barrage of misinformation and half truths raining down on the British public, I realised some time ago that pro-Europeans like me were fighting a losing battle.


And it’s a losing battle on two fronts, because the EU itself has become a much less attractive institution in recent years. The appalling treatment inflicted on Greece over its debt crisis and the even more shocking failure to provide for Syrian refugees (yes, Britain, they are refugees, not migrants!), not to mention the EU’s rather spineless caving in to recent British demands for exceptions and changes have destroyed any faith I ever had in the organisation. The European Union needs reform, not to make it more “businesslike” along British lines, but to make it more representative of its people, more democratic and more human. But there are plenty of people in the UK who would prefer to be the 51st state of the USA than get involved in improving matters closer to home like these.

So Britain will vote however it will on 23 June. If it does decide to leave the EU, this will undoubtedly have consequences for many of us: British people living abroad (my case), Europeans living in Britain and translators will be particularly affected. Perhaps the Europeans in Britain will have it worse. The UK has already imposed a law demanding that non-EU citizens earning less than £35,000 a year should be forced to leave. We can only assume that, if Britain leaves the Union, this legislation will also apply to EU citizens, forcing out thousands who until now thought they would be able to live and work there in peace indefinitely out of the country.

The possible effect on translators is less clear. It’s possible that the inevitable drop in business between Britain and the EU will reduce work for those of us working into or out of English. However, there will still be trade, just as there is between the EU and other countries lying outside it. Moreover, English is so well established as a common working language within the EU and within EU companies that it seems unlikely this will change. What may happen is an intensification of the trend towards what we might call Euro-English: a form of English that no British (or American, Australian or South African for that matter) would ever speak, but which is used in the likes of EU documents. With no British influence at all, there would be little to stop it developing in its own way and, as translators, we may be forced to go along with some of its barbarisms.


As for my position as a British person living abroad, I would presumably lose my status as an EU resident in Spain and may have to take Spanish nationality. I shouldn’t have any problems with this – I’ve lived here for 17 years now and I’m married to a Spanish citizen – although I have to say that, for all the defects of the UK, Spain is not a state I particularly want to belong to given its rampant corruption and glaring political inadequacies. Having said that, I care so little for nationalities that if it was simply a matter of convenience I’d quote happily become Monrovian or a citizen of the Moon, and if I have to be a Spaniard I’ll do it. I imagine many people in my position will do the same.

So what will Britain actually do? It’s going to be a close call, but I have my suspicions. In England at Easter I saw a Council official guarding the entrance to a park after a storm, preventing people going in because of the damage. A group of boys, perhaps foreign exchange students but in any case clearly not British, walked up to him and when told they couldn’t go in started pointlessly kicking the bollards just outside. The man – a fairly insignificant figure – did his best to produce an unpleasant snarl. “If you’re not in your own country, you’d better behave yourselves,” he yapped. There was something in that unnecessary reference to the boys’ foreignness; something in the way making it boosted his feeling of self-importance, that made me fear for the referendum result. If I’m right, come the end of June I could find myself living in a very different and somewhat smaller European Union.



  1. Lloyd Bingham

    An interesting read, Simon. I’ve not seen many (any) other translators broach the issue of Brexit, particularly given that translators are, as you say, more internationally-minded. Many of us UK-based translators do a hell of a lot (if not most) of our business with other EU countries, travel there frequently, have had our studies funded by the EU (Erasmus scheme, etc.). Translators are generally, I dare say, more informed about the benefits and drawbacks of EU membership, not relying solely on the right-wing media for our (mis-)information. It is those who perhaps have comparatively less to do with the EU in their day-to-day lives (and are fed the drawbacks – be they true or made up – rather than benefits of membership) who will decide the outcome.

    I think it is interesting to compare this referendum with the Scottish independence vote 18 months ago. It is similar in that the campaign to change the status quo is far more visible than the other, and I think the silent majority will again decide the outcome, which was of course a No to Scottish independence and will be Remain for the EU vote. People (Brits, at least) are afraid of change and taking a risk, as the Scottish ref proved despite a rather positive and realistic campaign IMHO, as did the decision not to join the euro. As strongly as people believe in their principles, the British aren’t a revolutionary people. Just a look at the pressure the Icelandic people put on their prime minister to resign this week after the leaked Panama Papers. David Cameron could literally get away with murder and, despite his general unpopularity, still not be put under enough pressure to resign.

    I’ve observed situations like the one you refer to about the foreign exchange students and unnecessarily pointing out their ‘foreignness’. Brits are sadly rather insular overall and also forget that this freedom of movement within the EU also applies to us. There are 1 million like yourself living in Spain, but of course they are not foreigners or migrants like those who come to the UK. It seems we have a right to live there, but no-one has the right to live here! It’s also a problem within the UK itself and I’ve encountered situations in England whereby someone’s opinion doesn’t matter because they are from Scotland/Wales/Northern Ireland – the former being more anti-EU and the latter being more pro. Brexit can only divide the UK even further.


      Thanks for your comment, Lloyd. You make some very good points and I only hope you’re right about the "silent majority". But will a close "Remain" be a definitive verdict, particularly with the spectre of Boris Johnson looming over 10 Downing Street?

      • Lloyd Bingham

        It is quite possible Boris could end up in Downing Street. Speaking as someone with a firm interest in political yet no affinity with one party in particular, I don’t see Labour winning the general election for some time and Boris is the most electable of the main challengers to Cameron.

        And after a Remain vote, any attempts to (undemocratically) pull the UK out of the EU will only make him more popular. It would of course be highly hypocritical given objections to a second Scottish independence referendum.

        Also, call me a conspiracy theorist but I don’t think the government would ‘allow’ an Out vote (or a vote favouring Scottish independence).


          I can’t see how a firm vote on either the EU or Scottish independence could be ignored, although a narrow one might be. But I think the Scots will have an excellent case for independence if Britain leaves the EU. I believe a large part of the decisive argument against independence in the first referendum concerned the likelihood of having to leave the EU. If that argument is reversed it will be difficult to persuade the Scots to stay with England, Wales an N. Ireland outside the Union. After all, the "Auld Alliance" with France is considerably older than the Union with England.

  2. Nikki Graham

    Thanks for the post, Simon. It’s a truly worrying situation and the reasons the few "leave" people I’ve talked to about this issue give for wanting out are based on a complete lack of understanding of the good the EU has done for us as a country and Europe as a whole and on not wanting Britain to be dictated to. The EU is not perfect, but I think that, globally, we need to come together to tackle the many challenges we face rather than seeking more divisions.
    Apparently, it’s the older generation, who are most likely to go out to vote, that mostly want out, and the younger generation, most likely not to vote, that mostly want in. Let’s hope the latter get off their backsides and realise how important this vote is and that sense will prevail.
    In the meantime, the only positive I’ve noticed is that the euro is now stronger against the pound so I’m receiving more money for my translation efforts!


      Thank you for your comment, Nikki. The fact that so many of the translators I know work very happily with Swiss clients (I’ve even had one or two) suggests that even if Britain does leave you shouldn’t have too many problems, but that’s certainly not a reason for advocating it. I just hope common sense prevails.


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