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Linguistic protectionism: good or bad?

Last Sunday (26 March), a week of 1,500 events celebrating the French language all over the world came to a close. This year’s theme, ‘The virtual world’, had a decidedly forward-looking flavour that Dr Juliette Scott believes was selected to challenge the legacy of Jacques Toubon, the former French culture minister who passed a law effectively outlawing the use of untranslated English vocabulary in areas such as education, business and advertising.

The ‘Semaine de la langue française et de la Francophonie’, an initiative of the Ministry of Culture and Communication, is supported by a range of public and private sponsors. Partner towns and villages, theatres, museums, schools and universities, bookshops and libraries and the media held all kinds of competitions, workshops, games, performances, screenings and concerts. This year’s theme, ‘The virtual world’, had a decidedly forward-looking flavour.

The Ministry doesn’t only promote events. It also produces a highly serious and detailed annual report for the French parliament on the use of the French language. The latest edition (218 pages) covers advertising and audio-visual media, standards, employment, education, linguistic rights in law, and translation.

One of the most iconic (and oft-reviled) manifestations of ‘policing’ French usage is the so-called Toubon Act. Passed in 1994 by the then culture minister Jacques Toubon, its stated aim is to protect the consumer and defend the French language. In practice, it embodies a reaction against foreign influence, specifically ‘anglicisms’. (Readers might enjoy this light-hearted short public information video). Product labels and instructions, websites and advertising campaigns are strictly monitored to ensure that translations are always provided, and infringements are detailed in the Ministry’s report.

A watchful eye is kept on the extent to which French is used outside the country too. How it is translated and interpreted at EU institutions and global organisations such as the United Nations, or selected as a drafting language, in information for citizens, and for international relations.

There is a delicate balance here between heritage and protectionism, between upholding rights and resisting change, and between identity and insecurity (Ager, D E (1999). Identity, insecurity and image. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters).

Who could argue with the requirement to translate employment contracts into an employee’s native language, for example, or the right to translation and interpreting in criminal proceedings (see Directive 2010/64/EU). Words do matter, which is why active, thoughtful collaboration in developing neologisms and technical terminology can bring about coordinated enrichment of the language.

On the other hand, for some nationalities, the regulation of language use seems interventionist in the extreme. The Ministry is not the only entity to be doing this – its report cites a whole host of others. One of them is the Académie française, that august institution inaugurated in 1635, and foreigners often have a hard time understanding how it can ‘decide’ which words are allowed and which are not.

France sometimes seems to want to replace one hegemony – as it sees the English language – with another, its own. This is further complicated by the issue of standard French versus regional languages such as Occitan, Breton, Corsican and so on.

Going back to last week’s festival, the high-tech theme ‘The virtual world’ was no doubt selected to challenge Jacques Toubon’s legacy that paints people interested in preserving le français with a traditionalist brush. But in a climate of Brexit and global intolerance, maybe the importance of language, linguistic rights and their contribution to diversity and culture is not such a backward-looking thing after all?

Dr Juliette Scott researches legal translation studies at the School of Advanced Study. Her current main focus is the under-explored area of ‘outstitutional’ legal translation. She is also establishing the School’s new Legal Translation Hub, a joint initiative between its Institute of Modern Languages Research and Institute of Advanced Legal Studies. As part of its educational, research and engagement activities it has just launched a unique LLM in Legal TranslationDr Scott also has 25 years’ experience of providing corporate and legal linguistic services to law firms, institutions and companies of all dimensions.

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