Gaelige and Brussels’ Tower of Babel

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL January 22, 2022

Photo by Soner Eker on Unsplash

The year opened with good news for speakers of Irish or Gaelige. On January 1, it became one of the European Union’s (EU) 24 official languages. This means that all official EU documents need to be translated into Irish from this year onwards.

Imagine the armies of Gaelige translators that will now be needed at the frontlines of European comprehension as that Tower of Babel labours to make sense of all that’s said and written.

Gaelige’s accession up the ranks is not really a promotion so much as self-affirmation. As European official documents make clear, “Irish has been a Treaty language since 1973, the year of Ireland’s accession, meaning that only the EU treaties were translated into Irish. In 2007, at Ireland’s request, Irish became an official and working language of the EU. However, under a derogation granted by the Council, not all documents were translated into Irish at that point.” This was on account of a shortage of translation staff.

Fifteen years on and there are enough Gaelige-speakers and readers standing at the ready to meet the EU’s demands The Commission report of 21 June 2021 confirmed that all the EU institutions had sufficient capacity to meet the demand for translation of e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g into Irish as of January 2022.

A great effort for little gain?

Only a tiny proportion of people in Ireland use Gaeilge in their daily lives. What’s the point of translating a whole heap of EU documents (which few people read, anyway) into even something even more obscure and little comprehended, namely Gaelige?

But this is a perennial problem because the EU’s attempts to be scrupulously fair and egalitarian mean it abandons basic rules of common sense and prudence. As has often been pointed out, for most of its life, the EU largely functioned in three main languages – German was its leading mother tongue; French was its language of diplomacy and English was a widely comprehended second language.

That Gaelige is now a creator of jobs in Brussels does not guarantee it will be spoken any more than usual (even in Ireland).