Multilingualism and policy

”Friendship, not just communication“ – An interview with Jürgen Trabant

Jürgen Trabant, a Romanist, talks about the significance of multilingualism for European culture and about his curious new challenge of promoting multilingualism at an English-speaking university in Germany.

Professor Trabant, in November 2008 a declaration entitled “For a continent of translations” appeared, signed by you and a number of well-known European intellectuals. What was the objective of this declaration?

We wanted to support Mr Orban, the European Commissioner for Multilingualism, in his endeavours to bring about a EU parliamentary resolution on this subject. Our aim was to stress the fact that Europe is a culture that is based on different languages – a culture in different languages. And this means that we are a culture, a continent, of translations.

An asset for Europe

On 24 March 2009, the European Parliament (EP) approved, at Leonard Orban’s instigation, a comprehensive resolution entitled Multilingualism: an asset for Europe and a shared commitment, which proposes “introducing a European Day of the Translator and Interpreter or taking account of or raising the profile of these professions during the European Day of Languages”.

Leonard Orban, EU Commissioner for Multilingualism. © European Communities, 2009 In addition, the EP argues strongly in favour of actively promoting multilingualism. Among other things, the EP “warmly welcomes the Commission proposal to promote ‘mother tongue plus two’ in education”. The EP accuses the European Commission of having still failed to institute “a multi-annual programme” or “a European Agency on linguistic diversity and language learning”, despite having called for these in 2003.


How do you view Leonard Orban’s multilingualism policy?

Orban is in actual fact a technocrat. Nonetheless, as a Hungarian Romanian and an international citizen who speaks many languages, he is a pretty credible representative of the European multilingualism programme. I have already met him twice, and was impressed by him both times.

The writer Amin Maalouf was the chairman of the Intellectual Group for Intercultural Dialogue set up by the European Commission, © European Communities, 2009 I recently asked Mr Orban about the idea put forward by the writer Amin Maalouf, who suggests that every EU citizen should learn another European language as a so-called adoptive language. He said he fully supported this idea. He then laughed and said: “But just try asking the governments what they think of the programme proposed by Mr Maalouf.”

It’s quite obvious – governments hate this programme! They block it because it would of course be enormously expensive to set up schools and other institutions all over Europe to promote adoptive languages. It’s much cheaper the way it is now: we all learn English, and that’s that.

You take exception to English being used as a “dialect of transaction”. Is communication enabled through translators and interpreters really better in all cases than a direct exchange, even if it does take place in poor English?

No, I make a clear distinction between two different situations. When it is a question of quick and convenient communication, we are all glad to have English. However, when it is important how I say something, translators are better. And I don’t just mean literature or poetry, but for example the texts written in the humanities. In the field of philosophy, for instance, it is crucial that we say it exactly as we say it. It is not possible to communicate something “quick as a flash” in some sort of basic English – it is important that it is translated into a language that has the same meaning to those we are addressing as it does to us. It is better for a Frenchman to read my text in French than for him to have it communicated to him in English, a mediator language.

Is this in fact realistic? In the sciences, after all, English is becoming more and more common.

We have to try to save whatever we still can: the goal is to preserve the translation profession, which does at least still exist, and to uphold the strong native-language cultures of academia which exist in the humanities and social sciences, where the national language is essential for work and publication.

In the sciences the situation is certainly somewhat different; scientific activities are not really language-based. In greatly simplified terms, science is all about measuring and dissecting things by hand and then using numbers, statistics and illustrations to describe them – this can easily be done in English.

You yourself are a Romanist. English surely has no place in your field, does it?

You couldn’t be more wrong – the most absurd things happen in my field. Romanists have always been famous for being able to speak various Romance languages, and Romance languages used to be spoken at German Romanist conferences. A section about Italian syntax would of course be conducted in Italian, so the Italians could come and give their lectures in Italian. These days, this happens in English – the Italians come, speak a completely incomprehensible English and we nod our heads, cosmopolitan as we are.

Members of the “Maalouf Group” (from left to right): Jacques de Decker, Simonetta Agnello Hornby, Amin Maalouf, Leonard Orban, Jutta Limbach, Sandra Pralong © European Communities, 2009

Should European multilingualism policy – especially in view of the economic crisis – not concentrate for economic reasons on promoting the learning of English and other up-and-coming world languages such as Chinese?

No. Obviously a person wishing to do business with the Chinese should learn Chinese. The lion’s share of German foreign trade, however, still takes place in Europe. Furthermore, for me Europe is not merely an economic but also a cultural entity. I couldn’t care less about economic factors, because I am in the field of cultural studies and because I love Europe. Europe has its roots in a shared Jewish, Greek and Christian culture that since the 16th century has been embedded in the different languages. That is my Europe, and I want to preserve it for as long as possible.

The “European language” should in each case be our own, and it should – in this I passionately agree with Maalouf – be an adoptive language that we genuinely learn as a language rather than simply as a means of communication. The goal is friendship, not merely communication. I may be able to order a pizza in English in Sicily, but that does not make me friends with the pizza baker. If I speak to him in Italian, on the other hand, I will find myself much closer to his heart.

Professor Trabant, since 2008 you have been a professor of European multilingualism at the English-speaking Jacobs University Bremen. A somewhat odd position, don’t you find?

SStudents at the Jacobs University Bremen campus. © Jacobs University Bremen

I said to the university: “You do realize that I am not in favour of monolingualism at the university, and that I am committed to multilingualism.” They replied: “Yes, that’s why we want you.” I thus attempt to explain to my students in English that this is not the only language there is, and that their own native language is also a valuable instrument for thought and communication. My job is to counteract linguistic globalization.
Christoph Brammertz
conducted the interview. He is a member of the Goethe-Institut online editorial team.

Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!
online-redaktion@goethe.de
July 2009

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