Can you speak German at the U.N.?

At the weekend, e-world thinker Esther Dyson criticized the United Nations efforts to work unilaterally (via a new Working Group on Internet Governance ) towards regulating the Internet as a global ‘facility’. In a nutshell, Esther believes the Internet should not be regulated by any single centralized authority such as the U.N., even though it could play a role. Users everywhere should have a say in how it is governed. Which means people speaking different languages meeting together to thrash out strategy. One argument against centralization came from Adam Peake from the Centre for Global Communications in Japan, who is quoted as saying:

“Everyone must be able to participate, if not in person then remotely or through submitted comments, and that should be in their local language,”(…) pointing out that languages such as Japanese and German were not ‘official’ U.N. languages.”

In other words, if a given international body takes over the control or ‘governance’ of a global facility or activity, its own linguistic regime will determine its accountability to citizens. But is this actually true?

At a trivial level – yes. The U.N. certainly excludes German and Japanese, along with some 5,900 other languages on the planet, as official working languages. As it happens, there is a grass roots movement to have Japan, Germany, India and Brazil elected as permanent members of the Security Council, which would entail official status for Japanese, German, and Brazilian Portuguese if not an indigenous Indian language. In fact, Joschka Fischer spoke at the U.N. in German the other day.

But international organizations (as do some corporations) always make a difference between official/working languages and actual face to face needs. If a Japanese speaker wishes to speak in some capacity at the U.N., I imagine they would be provided with two-way oral interpretation or translation facilities, as appropriate. The OECD in Paris has only English and French as its official (working) languages, but its translation department handles a vast range of languages beyond these two, depending on specific needs. A German monolingual speaker could in practice, I believe, communicate to committees and groups in these bodies, however awkward it might be.

Likewise, the E.U. has a small group of ‘legacy’ working languages for day to day meetings, to the consistent dismay of newer Greek, Portuguese and Danish delegates (and now another 10 speaker groups). If necessary, though, Brussels will roll out its whole linguistic works for high value individuals, such as Turkish prime minister Erdoğan who has been communicating his country’s desire to join the EU in Turkish. I also expect that any of those organizations mentioned would field signers and produce Braille transcripts had someone like Beethoven or Helen Keller turned up to complain. An organization’s linguistic policy probably does not determine its informal communicative repertoire, only its official face. But it might be worth checking on how far this is possible all around the globe.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.


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