A boon for a small language

The European Union's role in boosting Maltese as one of its 24 official languages.

The Maltese language’s status as one of the European Union’s official languages has been a positive force over these first two decades of membership, particularly by having granted such a small language prestige and resources while increasing its online visibility.

Norma Saliba, Head of the Centre for the Maltese Language, and David Schembri, Linguistic Officer at the European Commission Representation in Malta, concurred on this point during a discussion on Kafè Ewropa, One Radio’s weekly European elections talk show hosted by The Journal editor Sandro Mangion.

The EU has 24 official languages, all of which have equal legal standing: Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, and Swedish.

David Schembri recalled that, when Maltese became an official language of the EU in 2004, broadband was being rolled out throughout the continent, making the internet an essential part of modern life, enabling faster communication, access to information, and a wider range of online activities.

“This development has made English a more prominent language online and a valuable tool for communication and access to information on a global scale,” Schembri pointed out. Because of this fortunate coincidence and the resources that have been heavily invested by the EU in digital translation tools, the translation of several thousands of EU documents into Maltese has established a strong online presence for the language. This has been complimented over the past few years by initiatives here in Malta, including a myriad podcasts in Maltese and more portals being translated into Maltese via automatic translation.

David Schembri, Linguistic Officer at the European Commission Representation in Malta.

Joining the discussion from Luxembourg was Helga Zahra, Head of the European Commission’s 60-strong Maltese Language Department. Highlighting advancements in machine translation, she noted that European institutions are constantly refining their tools, leading to translations that become increasingly accurate over time. These refined translations are then stored in a central database, even contributing to Google Translate’s own capabilities. “The impact of Maltese translators is arguably even greater in this context,” Dr Zahra argued. “Malta’s official language status has led to a vast online repository of Maltese documents, creating a significant ripple effect.”

In Luxembourg, the Directorate General for Translation at the European Commission integrates terminology in the translation workflow by allowing for every language department to have two full-time – or full-time equivalent – terminologists. Their responsibility is primarily that of ensuring clear and consistent use of language, and the standardisation of terms and phrases, especially in technical and specialised texts.

Dr Helga Zahra, Head of the European Commission’s Maltese Language Department in Luxembourg.

A learning curve

Commending the EU institutions for their efforts in streamlining Maltese translation and promoting its use, Norma Saliba said that there is significant room for improvement here in Malta, particularly regarding the adoption of digital translation tools. Yet, things are moving. She mentioned traduzzjoni.mt, the national language technology platform for Malta, a free online resource that provides automatic translation services that was supported by the European Commission. It serves as a tool to encourage the use of Maltese in the digital sphere and to make government services more accessible to Maltese citizens. Furthermore, the Centre for the Maltese Language is currently working on the development of a Maltese spell-checker (“ċekkjatur”).

Norma Saliba, Head of the Centre for the Maltese Language.

David Schembri shared a personal point of view that Maltese language resources are still underutilised in Malta. He highlighted an inconsistency: Maltese interpretation is readily available in European institutions, but in Malta events often switch to English for just a few non-Maltese attendees. This disregards the needs of Maltese speakers who prefer to follow proceedings in their native language. He suggests offering interpretation services for non-Maltese speakers at events in Malta.

100,000 pages annually

Meanwhile, Helga Zahra explained that the work translated into Maltese within the European Commission is roughly divided into two categories: legislation and communication documents, the latter including correspondence from and to Maltese citizens who write to the institution in Maltese as well as replies to parliamentary questions submitted by MEPs to Commissioners in Maltese. Around 100,000 pages were translated into Maltese in 2022 and that number is rising. Circa 60% of documents are translated in-house while the rest are farmed out to freelance translation contractors based in Malta.

The need to translate a vast amount of EU documents into Maltese has indeed created many jobs for Maltese translators, interpreters, terminologists, linguistic assistants and others. Furthermore, the language’s official status raises its profile, potentially making it a more valuable skill for certain jobs within Malta, especially those dealing with the EU. This is a remarkable accomplishment, especially considering that Maltese, despite its long and rich history of development, only became Malta’s official language in 1934 and an official language of the EU 20 years ago, Norma Saliba pointed out. She had words of appreciation for the significant progress made in the quality of Maltese translation services within the European institutions over the years.

Echoing this sentiment, David Schembri highlighted the positive impact of Maltese becoming an official EU language on the translation, interpretation, and proofreading professions in Malta. He specifically mentioned the introduction of specialised courses at the University of Malta as a key example of this progress.

Expanding the language’s horizons

But that’s not all. The fact that Maltese became an official EU language has helped it develop in new registers – varieties of the language used for specific purposes or situations.

David Schembri addressed the concept of “il-Malti ta’ Brussell” (“Brussels Maltese”). This term refers to a particular style of Maltese used in official EU documents. It can be unfamiliar to some Maltese speakers because it deals with subject areas where Maltese hasn’t traditionally been used. He explained that, over the past two decades, Maltese translators working for the EU have shouldered the challenge of creating new terminology for these specialised fields. This involved coining new technical words and terms to accurately represent these concepts in Maltese.

The language officer defended the use of Maltese in these documents, arguing that criticism should be targeted. He acknowledged that an EU document translated for the general public in Maltese should be clear and understandable by everyone. However, for technical documents, a certain level of complexity is expected for non-specialists, just as it would be in any other language.

‘Kif Tikteb Ċar’ (‘Writing Clearly’): A handbook prepared by the European Commission for its Maltese translators.

A matter of pride?

Maltese being an official language puts it on an equal footing with larger languages in the EU. This can be a source of pride for Maltese speakers, acknowledging their language’s importance.

The European Union invests heavily in the creation of Maltese-language documents. Ironically, the only Maltese-language journal dedicated to translation, L-Aċċent, is published by the EU’s Maltese Language Department, not here in Malta. Meanwhile, a curious shift is occurring on the island, with many Maltese-speaking parents choosing English instead of Maltese to communicate with their children. Additionally, most politicians and public officials seem to only acknowledge the English versions of EU documents, neglecting the Maltese ones.

Where is our national pride in this case? Is the EU being more proactive in promoting the use of Maltese, while some aspects of Maltese society might be inadvertently contributing to a decline in its everyday use? Both Norma Saliba and David Schembri believe that a combination of strategies should be employed for Malta to create a strong foundation for the continued use and growth of the Maltese language.

On the other hand, David Schembri observes that, having the European Union speak our language underscores our sense of belonging to it. It signifies that the Union isn’t just a distant entity, but something we all have a stake in.

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