Blowing the nation’s trumpet: languages and public diplomacy (1)

I recently spent 2 days interpreting in Birmingham for an Italian delegation from Italia Lavoro and Regione Marche. They were here to find out more about the work being done by Sue Veszpremi’s Employer Engagement team at Jobcentre Plus to help the long-term unemployed back into employment. Wonderful work, in my opinion – Mr. Osborne, please don’t cut their budget!

I came away from the meetings with a couple of thoughts very clear in my mind.

It simply isn’t true that “everyone else speaks English – so learning languages doesn’t matter”.

Only one of the Jobcentre Plus team could speak (a little bit of) Italian. Another could say “Valentino Rossi” (and probably Fabio Capello too, but we’ll draw a veil over that).

Of the 7 members of the Italian delegation, only 1 would have been able to participate fully in the meetings without an interpreter. (By “participate fully” I mean listen, understand and speak). A couple had only a smattering of English. The others would have been able to take part in much of the dialogue, but not make their own presentations in English.

The programme included a meeting with 3 previously long-term unemployed women who’d found jobs with the help of Jobcentre Plus. One spoke standard English with a Birmingham accent, one spoke pure Brummie and the third had an Asian-Brummie twang and spoke at top speed. I could barely understand her… and she me. The Italian delegation would have been flummoxed.

There’s a shortage of English/Italian interpreters in the UK. Certainly in Birmingham and, I suspect, countrywide.

The Italian delegation initially wanted a Birmingham-based interpreter. Neither they nor the Jobcentre Plus team could find one. We gradually widened the search criteria from “English/Italian specialising in employment/social affairs” to just “English/Italian”. And from Birmingham to West Midlands to England to the UK to an appeal on Twitter. Drawing a blank with each. So I ended up doing the job myself, although I’m a translator rather than an interpreter.

Does any of this matter?

I think it does. That visit to Birmingham was a great opportunity to tell a British success story. The Italian delegates were impressed not just by the case-studies presented but also – I think even more so – by the dedication, commitment and enthusiasm of the Jobcentre Plus team.

That, surely, is what public diplomacy is all about. But how can we broadcast our “good news” stories internationally if we don’t have the language skills to do so?

By Marian Dougan

Published by Marian Dougan

Marian is a translator and editor (specialising in web content) currently based in Glasgow, Scotland. Marian previously lived in Italy for over 20 years, working as a language teacher, translator and policy analyst with the British Embassy in Rome. A qualified member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and its Italian-language and ITI Scotnet networks, she is currently Scotnet's Convenor and Deputy Webmaster. From 2003 to 2006 Marian taught translation skills at the Italian Department of Glasgow University and now gives Master Classes as part of the new Masters in Translation Studies course. She also conducts web-writing and usability workshops to help people improve their websites and communicate more effectively with their readers, users and customers. In September 2014 Marian obtained User Experience Certification, with specialisation in Web Design, from the Nielsen Norman Group. She loves language, especially English, and is convinced that learning languages opens up people’s minds and horizons (and increases their brainpower!). To share her enthusiasm, she advises schools and educational authorities on language skills and enterprise. She gives talks to pupils on how to combine language studies with other subjects and so enhance their potential and increase their career options. Marian is an active member of organisations such as: Scottish Council Development and Industry (SCDI); Association of Scottish Businesswomen; Dunbartonshire Chamber of Commerce and the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Scotland. She also loves architecture, design, fashion (British Vogue!), cities and chocolate. She’s a great fan of Twitter and you can also find her on Linkedin.

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