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Taoiseach Micheál Martin with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen Alamy
full working language

'The European Union is more faithful to the Irish language than the Irish state is'

On 1 January, the Irish language became a full official and working language of the European Union. It’s been a long road to get here.

ON 1 JANUARY of this year, the Irish language became a full official and working language of the European Union.

This means that all official documents from the EU across all of its institutions, including laws and meetings of minutes, must now be translated into Irish; MEPs and other officials can also address the Parliament and other meetings in Irish.

In the eyes of the EU, the Irish language now enjoys the same status as English, French, German, and the EU’s 20 other official languages.

How did we get here?

When Ireland first joined the EU in 1973, it did not request that the Irish language be an official language. Instead, it became a Treaty language, meaning that only treaties (Lisbon, Nice, etc) were translated.

In the early 2000s, the Stádas campaign was set up by Irish language advocacy groups to petition the government for Irish to become an official language. In 2004, 5,000 people attended a demonstration in Dublin, where a petition that collected 80,000 signatures was presented to a government representative.

“This is not an inachieveable dream, or beyond our reach. It is simply the will of the people and all we are asking for is fair play for a national language and Ireland’s first official language,” Dr Padraig Ó Laighin, spokesperson for Stádas, said at the time.

The Irish government asked the EU for official status, which was granted in 2007. However, due to a dearth of qualified translators and interpreters, a derogation was granted, which meant not all documents would be translated.

In 2015, Ireland asked that this derogation be phased out by 1 January, 2022. A European Commission report in June of last year confirmed that all EU institutions had the capacity to meet the demand for translation into Irish, and so the derogation was lifted at the beginning of the year.

“Ever since [2007], between universities, the governments [and] the European Union, we’ve been working since then to have the staff to do it, and I think basically that’s the case now,” says Minister of State for European Affairs, Thomas Byrne.

“There will always be hiccups at the start, but the translators are doing fantastic work, and I use Irish, certainly in at least one agenda item in every European meeting I go to.”

There are now in the region of 200 Irish translators working across all the EU institutions, translating all EU documents into Irish.

“You could say now that the European Union is more faithful to the language than the Irish state is,” says Ciarán Ó Ceallaigh, a translator with the European Council and the Council of the European Union, who spoke to The Journal in a personal capacity and was not giving the views of either organisation. 

Translating work

The European Council is a body made up of all the heads of state of the 27 EU countries. The Council of the European Union is a body made up of the different ministers from each member state.

Ó Ceallaigh started working with the “Council”, as both bodies are informally known, in 2009, when there were fewer than 10 translators on his team, and far fewer documents to translate.

“When we started first there would have been more down time. Where you would have gotten more chances to learn languages and attend more seminars and things, because we weren’t translating all the documents,” he says.

“But now it’s a bit tighter. Even though we’ve a much bigger team, there’s something like 34 people in the unit now. It’s massive in comparison to what I saw when I first came here.”

The translation of EU texts is a highly complex, technical process that requires a high-level of specific Irish. As Ó Ceallaigh explains, EU proposals usually start in the European Commission – the Executive branch of the EU – before they are bounced around between the Council and the EU Parliament.

“The documents will come to the Commission first, so their translators are often working with a blank canvas. Whereas by the time the things come to us, lots of it has been translated in the Commission,” says Ó Ceallaigh.

“A lot of base documents would be going into the Memories [a growing database of text segments and their translations] and then according to the legislative process – which is called the Ordinary Legislative Process (OLP) – it comes from the Commission and it goes over and back between the Council and the Parliament.

“There’s lobbying, horse trading, and changes, and people wanting this word or that word in a section. Sometimes they change a lot and sometimes they don’t change much depending on how it affects the member states.

“So when it comes to us, we’re dealing with amendments. In some ways, it’s tougher on the brain as you’re dealing with bits and pieces and you have to be sure to use the same lingo that’s been used before you in the base document that has come from the Commission.”

Increase in workload

Since the beginning of the year, the workload has been “crazy”, says Ó Ceallaigh, but it’s hard to know whether that is as result of the derogation being lifted, or just the large amount of global events taking place.

“More things happening means more documentation. Especially when there are economic crises, terrorist attacks, pandemics or wars going on,” he says.

“So, with the likes of the invasion of Ukraine, it makes a difference to the workload. There are emergency summits happening all the time, and the more meetings, the more documents produced.

“Every meeting you have produces statements and documents and conclusions and things like that. Then there are sanctions. The sanction documents, they could want those done in the middle of the night before some Central Bank opens. They have to be done in every language at the same time.”

As well as this, the rotating six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union is currently held by France, which means more documents have to be translated from French to Irish, which can make the process more challenging.

While Ó Ceallaigh says the workload is growing, “that’s what being an official language means – you have equal status.”

“So when things get busy, you have to do everything as well. There are more employment opportunities, so you’re busier, but that’s what it’s all about.

“If Ireland took a leaf out of that book, and translated all legal documents into Irish and English at the same time, as is happening at the EU, that would mean many more employment opportunities for translators at home in Ireland also.”

Learning the language

In order to become an EU translator, a high level of technical Irish is needed, and most translators would be very passionate about the language. As more jobs have opened up in the EU, more students are taking up courses in translation.

“There’s a huge interest in translation, that’s one of our biggest growth movements,” says Niall Comer, a lecturer at Ulster University and a former President of Conradh na Gaeilge.

“We know there’s a dearth of translators in the European Union and in Ireland. We currently have a Masters course that every year has a waiting list. And this is in translation because of the opportunities there. So there is growth in that end.”

For the last three years, as well as his translation work, Ó Ceallaigh has also been on mission from the Council of the European Union on a part-time basis, lecturing with Europus, a translation company, on their translation course in Connemara.

Europus specialises in Irish language consultancy, translation and subtitling. Ó Ceallaigh says it has functioned as a great feeder course over the past number of years, helping to produce EU translators.

In recent years, the EU input on the course has been aimed to equip translators with knowledge on the EU institutions, the work of a translator at the Council and how to apply for EU jobs.

A living language

With Irish now fully an official language, advocates believe it has an opportunity to grow in a live environment, with more opportunities for Irish speakers constantly opening up at EU level.

“It’s up to us now to use it,” says junior minister Thomas Byrne.

“If citizens are making complaints to the Commission, they can write them in Irish.”

Byrne says that the status of Irish at EU level puts pressure on the government to “do even more”.

“It’s a huge challenge for us now at home because there’s no doubt that you have more scope in the European Union. But, I think, we just need to use it more,” he says.

“But in truth it’s going to create pressure to do even more… it is going to require more people with a very high level of language skills in the civil service, because documents are coming out from Europe now in English and Irish… and that is definitely creating a bigger responsibility for us.”

For Ciarán Ó Ceallaigh, who is deeply passionate about the Irish language, the work done in the EU ensures that Irish remains a “living language”.

“It’s a living language and it’s developing. So if something doesn’t exist, some medical or scientific term, you might have to use transliteration to create it,” he says.

“We create every document like it’s open heart surgery. It’s done to the nth degree. From the very beginning you’re checking your resources, you have various people look at it after you, it’s revised and revised… it’s processed by central coordination and locally.”

He says there are forums and terminology discussions every week, and constant dialogue between translators and terminologists as the language grows.

“Positive analysis and reflection on usage is healthy for a minority language. All that discussion going on that wasn’t going on before on such a scale can only be good for the language.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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