Anthony Pym


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Translation and International Institutions. Explaining the Diversity Paradox

Anthony Pym 2001 

Paper presented to the workshop "Translation and Institutions" at the conference Language Study in Europe at the Turn of the Millenium, Societas Linguistica Europea, Katholieka Universiteit Leuven, 28-31 de agosto de 2001.

Abstract: The diversity paradox may be expressed as an apparent contradiction between, on the one hand, the rise of an international lingua franca, which should lead to lesser linguistic diversity, and on the other, increased use of translation, which should produce greater linguistic diversity. The paradox is that both these tendencies are occurring at the same time. It is suggested that one key to this paradox is to be found in the institutionalized nature of cross-cultural communication. Three models are presented of the way translation may operate within international institutions. One of the models, relying on a centralized production language and a multiplicity of target languages, is shown to be compatible with the diversity paradox.


The more cross-cultural communication is dominated by English as the dominant international lingua franca, the less one might expect to find the use of translation for cross-cultural communication. In theory, if people use the same language, they do not need to translate. However, what we find in the past few decades, according to all statistics, is a constant expansion of the translation market, running in parallel with the rise of English as the international lingua franca. This constitutes what we will call the diversity paradox: the lingua franca would appear to be reducing linguistic diversity, translation should ideally be increasing linguistic diversity, and both are happening at the same time.

To explain why this is so, we have to question many hasty presuppositions about contemporary cross-cultural communication. We cannot accept, for example, that international English is simply "the killer language", in a direct causal relationship with the undoubtedly declining number of live languages across the globe. Indeed, we must radically question many such generalisations that fail to account for the specific dynamics of translation. Nor can we accept, on the other hand, that the use of translation is directly able to protect the global stock of languages. There are few statistics to defend that case in causal terms, and there are many statistics indicating a highly asymmetric use of translation into a very restricted group of privileged languages. On both these fronts, what is needed is a more complex understanding of the institutionalised nature of cross-cultural communication.

Why look at international institutions?

Cross-cultural communication concerns the spheres of commerce, science, technology, information services, cultural content and personal relations. Public non-profit organisations might seem to form only a small segment of this broad range, even when they are of the order of the United Nations system or the European Union institutions. But there are good reasons for paying special attention to such institutions. By their very nature, they embody a collective being, complexes of public ideologies, open to debate and evolution (see Style in this volume). If we are reluctant to legislate what languages an individual should speak where, few generally extend the same freedom of choice to major institutions. Indeed, for this very reason, public institutions are quite possibly the only bodies likely to be at all influenced by discussions between linguists, such as the discussion we are engaged in here.

A second reason for looking in this direction is that there are many more institutions of this kind than meet the eye or make the press. The Yearbook of International Organizations for 1999-2000 contains entries on 29,495 non-profit organisations active in 289 countries and territories. These are divided into 24,325 international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and 5,170 intergovernmental organisations (IGOs). There are thus almost five times as many NGOs as IGOs. This distinction is of some importance for cross-cultural communication. The governmental foundations of IGOs tie those institutions to the nation-states and their corresponding national language policies. IGOs, from the United Nations system down, typically privilege multilingual policies for symbolic reasons, although they then attempt to reduce the high translation costs that ensue from those policies. NGOs, on the other hand, rarely have the funding necessary for symbolic translation practices; their use of translation is closer to what might precariously be termed "real needs"; they are far less likely to employ in-house staff translators or interpreters. In short, there are two quite different kinds of international institutions, and they sometimes solve their cross-cultural communication problems in quite different ways.

In what follows we shall briefly run through some of the communication and language policies most in evidence in such institutions. We shall then draw strategies from the anecdotal.

Communication in international non-profit institutions*

The differences between IGOs and NGOs are partly historical. If we look for distant antecedents of contemporary intergovernmental organisations, we would probably have to consider the structures of the classical multicultural empires, with their mixes of imposed lingua francas and respected national languages. Imperial translation operated as a means of often symbolic unification. In Europe, the largely cultural Holy Germanic Empire might be one kind of background for the use of translation such as we find it in the European Union institutions, where the central political figure is traditionally weak, much decision-making power remains with the major nation-states and with their preferred languages, and translation foregrounds the symbolic plurality of those languages. Intergovernmental undertakings in specific fields might nevertheless also be associated with the various military alliances that have required rather more efficient communication solutions. The weak imperial model beneath the many (currently eleven) official languages of the EU institutions is thus not the same as the one justifying the more restricted use of translation in an alliance like NATO (which has English and French as working languages).

International non-governmental organisations, on the other hand, would probably have to seek their antecedents in the structures and practices of the multinational churches, where ideology, shared interests, and various senses of mission tend to override the symbolic values of language loyalty. Although there are obvious and important differences between the Latin of Catholicism, the Classical Arabic of Islam, the Hebrew of Judaism, or the American English of various evangelical groups, the international churches tend to use translation as a means of radiating out from a main source or central language (sometimes sacred) toward any number of "branch" target languages. Since this model combines centralised power structures and relative efficiency, it tends to be the general rule of NGOs, and indeed of restricted-domain IGOs such as the European Free Trade Association (which had English as its lingua franca). Further, the demands of efficiency increasingly bring about situations where language-learning policies (mainly the learning of the central language or languages) reduce the actual need for translation within the organisational structure. In such situations, translation may even be restricted to communication with external entities only.

The spectacular rise in the number of international institutions of all kinds has been since the Second World War. The foundations of the UN and EU systems were established by the victors of that war, with attendant selections of official languages and correspondingly decentralised translation policies. Those patterns have largely been followed by the growing co-ordinated institutions sector, where organisations are basically limited to arranging contacts and agreements between national or governmental entities in specific domains such as health, telecommunications or banking. However, the rapid growth since the beginning of the 1960s has been in the number of NGOs. This may be seen as a response to the growing inadequacy of the nation-state as a unit of economic control, at the same time as the advent of cheap international communications has allowed civil society to cross political borders. Institutions such as Greenpeace or Medecins sans Frontières manifest ways in which an internationalised civil society seeks to pressure or complement the work of governments. Further, they do so on necessarily restricted budgets that often call for "user-pays" communication policies. In these cases, the need for efficiency radically reduces the number of working languages, in effect bolstering the status of international languages such as English and French, which also dominate the main IGO systems.

The language policies of many IGOs remain officially based on the Romantic principle of "one nation, one language". This is despite the fact that the very rise of these institutions ensues from the decline of the nation state as an effective decision-making unit. Perhaps the most extreme case is the European Union institutions, which with 15 members at the end of the millennium currently have 11 official languages. Since the possible language combinations are given by the formula n.(n-1), an EU of 11 languages must allow for 11x10=110 combinations. In practice this nightmare is mostly avoided by a number of real-need measures, the foremost of which is a pragmatic restriction of the central working languages to English and French, although attempts have been made to enhance the role of German. Coulmas (1991), in a wide-ranging critique of what was then the European Community of 12, calculated that even with the reduction of working languages the multilingual policy accounted for some 40% of the total administrative budget (which means it was about 2% of the total budget). In 1999 an alternative calculation put the total cost of translation and interpreting services at € 685.9 million, which would be only 15% of the administrative budget (see Wagner 2002). Either way, considerable sums are involved. More critically, Coulmas saw those costs as defending national languages against the growth of international English, concluding that "the European Community has been used by member states to defend their languages' privileged position rather than being given the chance to produce a language policy of its own" (1991: 8). That critique may now be less justified, as the EU institutions progressively evolve into a more supra-national system able to impose a centralised pragmatism on member states (in political terms, the former agents are becoming principles). A similar gap between idealist democratic policy and motivated pragmatic restriction can be seen in the United Nations. The UN's six official languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish) represent different moments of international expansion rather than nation-states as such, yet few institutions within the UN system actually use all six languages.

Opposed to the pragmatic tendency to reduce the number of working languages and thus economize translational resources, there are firm ideological arguments in favour of widening the number of languages used and thus promoting increased use of translation. The very function of most IGOs, particularly within the UN system, is to check the power imbalances that would predominate in direct relations between nation-states. Indeed, since many disputes come to IGOs precisely because of different views and interpretations, the function of the institution must be to manifest the cultural and linguistic dimensions of those differences. Such arguments need constantly to be restated in the face of financial pressures.

Three strategies

The above overview has hopefully brought out an underlying conflict between what should ideally happen (use of many equal languages) and what various criteria of efficiency mostly cause to happen (use of just one or two central languages). At the end of the day, the main difference between IGOs and NGOs in this area may be that the former have to pay greater lip-service to multilingual ideals. However, cutting across those pragmatic tussles, there are several quite distinct strategies to be extracted.

The catalogue of strategic language policies can be as extreme, subtle and complex as you like. Here we write against the background of José Lambert's seminal article "La traduction, les langues et la communication de masse" (1989), which brings out the basic alternatives we are dealing with here. Lambert, however, uses highly coloured terms in his description of the strategies, which range from "genocide" (as a way of reducing the number of language communities) to "complete translation" in the name of a "democratisation of languages" (1989: 223). For as much as Lambert then immediately claims that "there is nothing that permits us to assert that one of these solutions is by definition any better than the others" (1989: 224), few among us would openly assert the moral equality of genocide and democracy. Indeed, the terms are weighted heavily in favour of translation as a defence of democracy, and thus against the criteria of efficiency that we nevertheless find operative in institutions of all kinds.

In our modeling of the available strategies we need a less provocative term for the opposite of translation. Our choice here is for "language learning", which must be what happens sooner or later when one or two central languages are privileged in some way. This means that the diverse strategies for overcoming language barriers in cross-cultural communication may be reduced to three main heads:

1. Language learning: An institution may choose one or two official languages, obliging speakers of other languages to learn and operate in them. The learning of second or third languages thus obviates the need for translation of most kinds. Indeed, if analysed in cost-benefit terms, language learning is by far the most efficient strategy for long-term relations between a reduced number of stable partners, if only because its costs decrease with time whereas those of translation remain constant (Pym 1995). Language learning is thus dominant within most scientific and technical organisations and in institutions with just two official languages (e.g. OECD or NATO). Yet it is also present to some extent whenever the number of official languages is reduced, as is the case of the United Nations or European Union institutions. Further, within the actual operations of even the most multilingual institutions, most technicians and experts converse freely in just one or two languages, often non-native to non-native, in the interests of efficiency. As a rule of thumb, the more technical the domain, the more one might expect to find language learning replacing the need for translation.

2. Multilateral translation: The radical alternative to language learning is to have all languages translated into all other languages, such that the participants in cross-cultural communication may all produce texts in their first language. This is the fundamental idea behind the EU institutional maxim of "equal rights for all languages", which in practice means that all laws and outgoing documents of general application have to be drafted in all official languages (see Wagner 2002). The nightmare combination of transfers to and from all languages is nevertheless illusory, thanks to the practical reduction of working languages, as well as the growing use of pivot languages in translation and interpreting services. This means that complete multilateral translation is rarely to be found. In its place, we have a combination of language learning and translation, which is in fact the basis for our third strategy.

3. Translation from a central language: Criteria of efficiency mean that multilingual ideals are reduced by introducing a division between what happens within the central agencies of the institution (within its professional interculture) and what happens in relations with what might be termed client cultures (the relative monocultures whose languages are accorded official status by the institution). This division opens the way for one or two languages to be used on the inside, with translation limited to communication between the interculture and the monocultures. This is what we find in the major systems that nevertheless claim to have a multilingual policy, especially those of the European Union (Pym 1999). There are many sub-strategies involved here, including absolute language learning (both passive and active) for institutional officials, and passive language learning for a slightly wider circle (so that EU parliamentarians, for example, can speak their own language but understand speeches in several languages). European intellectuals of the order of Claude Hagège (1992: 273) and Umberto Eco (1993: 292-293) have viewed passive language competence as the most viable path to democratic relations in an age of globalising cultures. Yet what we find happening in most institutions is a more radical reduction of the lingua francas at work within the major intercultures, with degrees of centralisation that have little correspondence with twentieth-century humanist ideals.

This third strategy is of extreme interest because it would seem to be the trend not only of international non-profit institutions such as we find them, but also of most multinational marketing. The discourses of localization (cf. Sprung 2000) are based on production in a central language, mostly English, then translation and adaptation into a wide range of target languages, with the latter determined according to market criteria. That is, what we find in the NGOs, and increasingly in the IGOs as well, is also the way of global capitalism. The third strategy would appear to be winning on all fronts.

The diversity paradox explained

This is not the place to predict whether the various combinations of language learning and translation are leading to the best of possible worlds. Our more humble purpose is to point out that the paradox with which we began, the apparent contradiction between the growth of a lingua franca and the growth of translation, is handled in a fairly non-problematic way by our third strategy. The lingua franca is growing within intercultures, translation is reaching out beyond them. If you want to produce global software or become a world leader, you will probably need some command of English. But then, thanks to translation in its most diverse forms, the software and the leadership may then reach a very wide range of cultures and languages. And the latter may indeed be strengthened by such movements. We thus find that the growth of a lingua franca is compatible with the expansion of the global market for translation. QED.


* Details in this section have been drawn from our text "The Occurrence of Translation in International Organizations", written for Translation * Traduction * Übersetzung (Handbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikations-wissenschaft: De Gruyter, in press), where a more extensive treatment may be found.


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European Commission. 1999. A multilingual community at work. The European Commission's Translation Service, Luxembourg.
Hagège, Claude. 1992. Le Souffle de la langue, Paris: Odile Jacob.
Lambert, José. 1989. "La traduction, les langues et la communication de masse. Les ambiguïtés du discours international", Target 1/2. 215-237.
Pym, Anthony. 1995. "Translation as a Transaction Cost", Meta 40/4, 594-605.
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Sprung, Robert C., ed. 2000. Translating Into Success. Cutting-edge strategies for going multilingual in a global age, American Translators Association Scholarly Monograph Series. Volume XI. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
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Last update 4 December 2001  



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