The Brexit translation that humiliated Britain

28th July 2018

It’s all over the news and it’s been broadly covered by numerous publications. The Brexit white paper not only caused a huge controversy within the Conservative party but its translation has been widely criticised by German-speaking officials in Brussels.

The Chequers prospectus will be a difficult sell to the EU because Theresa May’s white paper proposes to keep the UK de-facto in the single market for goods and farm goods, removing the need for border controls post-Brexit. The EU disagrees with the idea, arguing that the four freedoms are invisible and that the UK cannot be in the market for goods without accepting free movement of people. More details can be found here.

Mistakes have been made in nearly all 22 languages the document was translated into but the German translation of the white paper seemed to be affected the most. It started with the misspelling of the word “German” in German, and went downhill from there. From spelling errors, use of incorrect words to bad tone of voice.

Axel Antoni, a German business accountant, tweeted that the white paper was “a mixture of archaic grammar and vocabulary and sloppy colloquial use of language”.

Have these basic errors cost Britain the opportunity to convince the EU to agree to Theresa’s May terms for Brexit?

Unfortunately for the UK, these mistakes also come at a time when Brexit appears to be marking another decline in the British ability to speak foreign languages. A highly desirable ability in the post-Brexit Britain, to enable us to communicate effectively with other parts of the world, in trade and export and business matters alike.

Although English language skills are well-established as an important business skill, with English being the most widely-spoken foreign language in the EU; in a world of increasing international exchanges, the ability to speak foreign languages is of particular importance in large markets with relatively little English spoken such as China, Brazil or Russia.

An EU survey, Foreign Language skill statistics, found that only 11.5 per cent of British working-age adults saw themselves as proficient in the foreign language they were best at.

The percentage of children studying a foreign language for GCSE has dropped from 76 to 47 per cent in the past 15 years. To make matters worse, over a third of state

secondary schools recently reported that Brexit was having a negative impact on language learning as a result of parental attitudes and 34% dip in student motivation.

We have covered this in detail in our recent article, ‘Foreign language learning gap widens’.

It’s fair to say that it’s about time British people put some real time into learning foreign languages, not only as an investment in our own education but also for our understanding of the world, and as a basic mark of respect.


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