Lost in translation?

A discussion with Dr Alfred Sant on the impact of the use of Maltese within the EU institutions.

In addition to having served as Labour Party leader, Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, and Member of the European Parliament, Dr Alfred Sant is a prolific writer across various mediums, boasting novels, plays, essays, short stories, and a new genre he calls “divertissements”.


Among his works, perhaps the most widely-known are Min hu Evelyn Costa? (Who is Evelyn Costa?), the collection of short stories Pupu fil-Baħar (A Doll in the Sea), and the novels L-Ewwel Weraq tal-Bajtar (The First Fig Leaves), La Bidu, La Tmiem, 1599 (Neither a Beginning, Nor an Ending, 1599), and L-Għalqa tal-Iskarjota (The Iscariot Field).

His political commitment, vast experience in public administration, and heavy involvement in Malta’s literary scene makes Alfred Sant the ideal person with whom to analyse the impact of the use of Maltese within the European institutions, in particular when it comes to translation and interpretation.


We started our discussion by delving into the impact that Malta’s EU membership has had on the Maltese language. Dr Sant is of the opinion that this effect has been minimal. He stressed that, rather, one should look more into the effects that globalisation has had on our language. He also mentioned the impact of new communication tools, particularly social media, and how these are changing the way the Maltese write and express themselves.

Translation


The main effect that Sant sees emerging from Malta’s EU membership is the translation of a large volume of technical terms that had never been used in Maltese before. He contends that this has had a minimal impact on the spoken language, also because most people prefer to read official texts in English rather than in Maltese. One way how these Luxembourg-coined terms might reach Maltese language users in Malta, says Sant, is through their use in the media.


Questioned about the significance of European institutions translating documents into Maltese, the former Prime Minister emphasised that such translations are crucial as they ensure the Maltese language receives the same respect and safeguards as other official EU languages. He believes that translations should cover all areas and types of documents and not just those that directly affect citizens. For him, this is also an important political point that should be maintained.


Alfred Sant remarked that there are a number of reasons why translations into Maltese of EU texts are, in large part, not widely used. One is the fact that the Maltese are accustomed to reading technical literature in English. As an example, he mentioned the economic and monetary fields, areas in which he has a professional and academic background and on which he focused in his work as an MEP. It is much easier and practical to use the English version than the Maltese translation, he admitted. This is not only a question of habit but also a result of the fact that the reader might understand the content better by reading the text in English. Sant explained that years of consuming economic and financial content in English have made him more comfortable reading it in that language, as he is much more familiar with certain terms in English than in Maltese.

Photo: European Parliament

In spite of this, in his work in the European Parliament’s Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs (ECON) he always insisted on having a Maltese version of the legislation he would be working on. Yet, when working on technical amendments or discussing the text with his colleagues, he found it much easier to refer to the English version.


When it came to evaluating the quality of translations produced by the European institutions, Dr Sant said that it is clear that an effort is being made to provide high-quality translations, remarking that a lot of pioneering work has been done. He believes that the main problem in this circumstance is that there is not enough feedback, mainly because there are not many people (readers) who can analyse, and help improve the product through their criticism.

Interpretation


As regards interpretation, once more Dr Sant stressed the importance of being able to give a speech in Maltese within the European institutions. However, he admitted that, in practice, there are also disadvantages linked to interpretation. One such disadvantage is the possibility that the speaker’s message might be tweaked in the process. Another disadvantage is the time needed for the interpretation to take place. Still, says Dr Sant, while English, French, and German – the EU’s procedural languages – might be practical choices for some EU procedures, it remains vital that Maltese receives equal treatment as the other official languages of the Union.

Photo: European Parliament/JAVIER BERNAL REVERT

Literature


We turn to Maltese literature, where Sant also sees little linguistic impact from EU membership, attributing greater influence to globalisation and the ever-evolving technological landscape. He observes a high number of Maltese writers working for the European institutions, primarily as translators. He ponders two possible explanations. One is the nature of translation work itself, potentially offering writers ample time for their own creative pursuits. Alternatively, perhaps their literary background naturally draws them to a profession centered on language – translation. Interestingly, Sant suggests that writers living in Brussels or Luxembourg might be influenced by their environment, weaving those experiences into their work.


Dr Sant acknowledged the potential for Maltese literature to make inroads in European markets. However, could the unique Maltese context explored in this literature, which may differ from mainland Europe’s experiences, act as a barrier to wider European recognition? He disagrees that the local context is an automatic obstacle and points to the success of Asian and Nordic literature in Europe, despite their vastly different settings compared to continental Europe. This suggests that European readers can connect with compelling stories regardless of origin.


Dr Sant suggests the Maltese literary scene emulate Iceland’s success. Both island nations boast small populations on Europe’s periphery, yet Iceland’s literary sector carved a niche for itself within the broader European literary landscape. He pinpointed a critical gap in Maltese literature: a robust commercial-artistic project. He emphasised the need for a multi-pronged approach, encompassing image building, targeted marketing efforts, and the creation of essential networks to propel Maltese literature onto the international stage.

Stefan Buhagiar is a European Commission official. The information and views set out in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Commission.

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