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

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