TRANSLATION and interpretation in matters of diplomacy is tricky. Language enthusiasts particularly enjoy the story of the Treaty of Wuchale, signed between Ethiopia and Italy in 1889. The text didn’t read the same in Amharic and Italian. The former guaranteed Ethiopia’s king Menelik II a good measure of autonomy in conducting foreign affairs. The latter established an Italian protectorate with no flexibility. The culprit: one verb, forming a permissive clause in Amharic and a mandatory one in Italian. Six years later, the differing interpretations led to war. Ethiopia won.
If only the Ethiopians and Italians had modern translators at their side. Treaty translation is big business today. The European Union, for example, spends an estimated €300m annually on translating between its 23 official languages. (While this is a big chunk of money, it’s less than 1% of the EU’s annual budget.) Three of those—English, French, and German—are working languages in most meetings. In reality, English (to the chagrin of the French) is most commonly used. But because each document must be faithfully recreated in each of the EU’s 23 languages, creating authentic versions can be expensive and time-consuming. Thankfully, most problems are dealt with in procès-verbal, a way to introduce technical corrections to treaties without revisiting negotiations. It might still delay matters. Last year, for example, Ireland’s ratification of an EU treaty was delayed by grammatical errors in the Irish version. There are obvious trade-offs to language equality, but the EU has calculated that the delays and costs are worth it.
The United Nations should revisit its own calculations. It has just six official and two working languages. The task of translation here in Geneva, home to most UN organs, is thus decidedly simpler. The UN’s official languages are geographically diverse—combined, native speakers of Arabic, English, French, Mandarin, Russian and Spanish number over 2.2 billion. But the two working languages are bound to tradition. The persistence of French is attributed to its history as the “language of diplomacy”. In the hallways of the New York headquarters, English is (naturally) favoured, and French is preferred in Geneva. Treaties registered with the United Nations Treaty Series are always translated into French and English. Documents are always provided in French and English. This city’s Geneva Conventions, written in equally authentic French and English versions, laid part of the groundwork for the international system.
But for all its history, today’s preference for French is anachronistic. At 74m native speakers, French is much smaller than languages like Portuguese, and Japanese. To be fair, French has geographic diversity to its credit. Languages with many more speakers, like Indonesian and Bengali, are spoken mainly on their home turf. But Spanish and Arabic are geographically spread, too, and they’re also numerically great. Spanish -speaking countries, unlike many of the Arabic -speaking ones, are enthusiastic participants in international bodies. Nearly all of Latin America, for example, claims membership at the UN-affiliated International Criminal Court. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, with their centres of gravity in Latin America, are strong and active. A contact at the UN office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recently told me that Spanish is more commonly heard than French there, despite the office’s location in French -speaking Geneva.
So what is it costing the UN to hang on to French? What would it cost the UN to add another working language, or to replace French? Because French has remained a working language of diplomacy for at least a century, French diplomatic education is excellent. The French translation apparatus at international organisations is well oiled. Many traditionalists in Europe hew to French, not English. Many African countries are officially Francophone (although French usage is mostly limited to elites). Important organisations, like Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Committee of the Red Cross, prefer French. There are decent reasons to keep French around, more than the obvious fear of hurting French -speakers’ feelings.
But the balance of power is different from a century ago. French is no longer representative of the international community. If the UN’s budget is tightening, its choice of working languages should be more efficient. Of the official languages, Arabic, Mandarin, Russian don’t make sense as successors to French. Arabic-speaking countries are comparatively listless participants in global affairs, often preferring instead to work through the introverted Arab League. Mandarin is enormous, but mostly plays a home game. Since the end of the cold war, Russian’s domain has shrunk. All three use non-Latin scripts, so introducing one as a working language would require a dramatic and expensive overhaul of the UN’s language apparatus. Spanish is the only logical replacement. It makes sense not only in comparison to Arabic, Mandarin and Russian, but also by itself. The UN should reward Spanish-speakers’ increased economic and social clout—and their outsized commitments to the international system—with a bigger seat at the language table.
In truth, these conversations are probably moot: as long as Geneva plays host to some of the UN’s most important organs, French isn’t going anywhere. But conversations about fairer language distributions are happening at the UN, even if mostly in private. Demographic data on the growth of Spanish show that matters will only become more urgent with time. As many international institutions mature despite limited budgets and resources, the UN system is overdue for a language reshuffle.