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Talking translation ... and Brexit

Updated: Oct 16, 2019

This week I have mostly been talking about the 'B' word. Not just at home where it features on an endless loop of news and dinner table debate, but also at work, as I present some of the linguistic challenges around the Brexit process to budding translators in the Masters in Translation and Interpreting programme at the Université Jean Monnet in St Etienne.

An event without political or linguistic precedent.

Putting political views of Brexit aside for once, it is a useful linguistic exercise for translators in the importance of using terminology with precision and intent.

Neologisms and metaphors The translation of neologisms such as the 'backstop', 'hard' and 'soft' Brexit and 'no-deal', of course certainly pose challenges for linguists but these were largely overcome at an early stage by civil servants and journalists.

More challenging puzzles arise for the translator through the 'weaponisation' of language on both sides of the debate (see article by David Shariatmadari earlier this week in Prospect). The vocabulary of warfare ('battle', 'freedom' ,'surrender', 'collaborators') peppers political debate, while the terminology of 'Remainers' and 'Leavers' conjurs up images of 'us' and 'them', two sides of an unsolvable linguistic riddle. The subtle differences between 'Brexiters' and 'Brexiteers', not to mention other inventive terms such as 'Bregret', 'Brexodus' and the fabulous 'Brexshit' all should have the cogs and wheels of translators' brains turning at full speed.

Given the complexity of the process of disentangling a country from the EU machinery for the first time in its history, many writers have turned liberally to the use of metaphor, describing the process as anything from escaping from prison, to removing an egg from an omelette, to ordering at a restaurant, to playing football.

Translators have to dig deep into their linguistic toolbox to find suitable images in their own languages that will resonate with their readers.

A shaky portmanteau In addition to these linguistic challenges, it strikes me that the term at the very heart of the debate is itself hanging from a rather shaky portmanteau.

The word 'portmanteau' originally meant a hinged travelling case in two parts, from the French 'porter' (to carry) and 'manteau' (cloak or coat). Its secondary, linguistic meaning, was introduced to English in 1871 by Lewis Carroll to mean a word blending the sounds and meanings of two others. Think 'brunch', 'smog', 'sitcom', 'motel', 'franglais'.

In the original version of Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice the origins of the word "slithy" which she has come across while reading the Jaberwocky ("Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe ..."). Humpty says to Alice

Well, 'SLITHY' means 'lithe and slimy'. 'Lithe' is the same as 'active'. You see it’s like a portmanteau - there are two meanings packed up into one word.

Because the word 'port(e)manteau' did not have the same 'suitcase' meaning in French, I found myself wondering how the French translator (Henri Parisot) tackled this. In the French version, Gros Coco (!) says

Eh bien, « slictueux » signifie : « souple, actif, onctueux. » Vois-tu, c'est comme une valise : il y a trois sens empaquetés en un seul mot.

('You see, it is like a suitcase: there are three meanings packed into a single word').

And since then, blended words are referred to in French as 'mot-valises', literally 'suitcase words'. A "portemanteau" meanwhile, simply means a "coat hook" or "hat rack".

But let's get back to the 'B' word.

The portmanteau in question here, 'Brexit', which officially entered the Oxford English Dictionary in December 2016, is obviously a combination of 'Britain' (or 'British') and 'exit'.

Yet when dismantled we can see that it is a rather shaky hook, in that 'Britain' is not a political entity but a geographic one. As such, cannot voluntarily 'exit' from anything. 'UKEXIT' would, of course, be linguistically more accurate, but admittedly doesn't have quite the same ring to it ...

All of which gives the ever imaginative Brilliant Maps an opportunity to come up with some tongue-twisting portmanteaux for the remaining 27 EU countries.

My personal favourites are 'Quitaly', 'Abortugal', 'Czech-out' and 'Nicoseeya'.

And on that note, it's over and out from (pre-Brexit) mainland Europe ...

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