Found in Translation: Fake Friends on a Mission Impossible

Listening to some Brits (though by no means all) during debates in Brussels is rather like witnessing a bunch of party-poopers crashing the party. Whilst everyone else is having a great time, getting full-throttle into the swing of things, ready to pump up the volume, along come these Brits with sombre expressions, long faces and an air of patronising contempt on their faces.

The killjoys question the wisdom of holding a party, give a sermon on the dangers of the excess and admonish the organisers for spending on frivolous pleasures.  Party-poopers are usually vilified for being tedious, unimaginative and dull individuals.

For all of those who value, appreciate and use the English language as native speakers, therefore, one can only hope that these party-poopers are not giving the English language a bad name – particularly since many non-native English speakers in Brussels are opting to speak in English during official business rather than their native tongue. You’d have thought the late-comers to the party would have been happy.

It seems particularly ungracious of the Brits to be so sneering of the European project as a whole given that many are embracing the tongue of the obviously disinterested.

At the same time, it has to be said, some of the English being used in the written language (forget the spoken for now) can render the native English speaker baffled, confused, unsure – (possibly adding to their scepticism?) It sounds like it should work in context – but somehow it doesn’t – what exactly is the author rattling on about?

Rapidly, the native English reader looses interest, the eyes glaze over, the reader enters into a trance-like state where words such as transposeattestationvalorise… semester… float around their consciousness without being pinned down to anything meaningful.

It was, therefore, with some interest that EU Perspectives came across a neat little piece written by Jeremy Gardner in the European Court of Auditors Journal on English usage in Brussels.

English is a Germanic language with a fair smattering of Latin and ancient Greek thrown in for good measure. That does not mean, however, that all Latin sounding words have the same meaning in English as they do in say Italian, French, Spanish or Portuguese. Far from it.  When an English speaking person reads “homogenise” they think “dairy/milk” not “standardisation” of, say, vehicle spare-parts.

In cases where “visa” turns up the reader assumes the author is going to talk about a document that grants (or not as the case may be) an individual right of entry. They may not necessarily understand it to mean “approving or endorsing” immigration.

Alternatively, words that to an English speaker sound cinematic such as “Agent” “Mission” and “Impossible” are common parlance in Brussels, bandied around each and every day by the EU institutions. Does this mean that Brussels is awash with Tom Cruise-like secret agents blasting-off on missiles to far-flung corners of the world to fight evil?


What is actually means is that an employee (agent) of the Commission is being sent on a business trip (mission) to London (impossible) to pave the way for a meeting on the European economy later in the week in Brussels.

Writing in a foreign language is a challenge at the best of time. The writer of this piece is the first to admit to being a lousy writer of any language other than English – and is the first to admire and acknowledge the tricky task of sitting down to write a piece in a language other than the mother tongue.

It will be interesting to see how widely accepted Jeremy Gardner’s advice will be taken by the euro-crats choosing to write in English. Will there be yet another dictionary on everyone’s lap-top that includes “Euro-English” alongside “Jamaican English” and “Australian English” and all the other forms of spoken and written English?

EU Perspectives thinks not.  Euro-English is understood by all but a few of those working in Brussels. Continued use thereof could lead the non-initiated to conclude that Brussels is an elitist entity with a language that is incomprehensible to the majority of native English speakers. As Gardner points out:

“The European institutions also need to communicate with the outside world and our documents need to be translated – both tasks that are not facilitated by the use of terminology that is unknown to native speakers and either does not appear in dictionaries or is shown in them with a different meaning….many of our most important documents are designed to be read by the general public and not just the Commission or the other institutions and should be drafted accordingly.”

The French have a brilliant term for these little misunderstandings: faux amis… and fake friend they certainly are. Well, EU Perspectives thinks that, in context, this is the correct translation of faux amis – or could it mean a fake cognate?

4 thoughts on “Found in Translation: Fake Friends on a Mission Impossible

    1. Kathleen Garnett

      Many thanks for forwarding. Will look at it with interest. Do the French have a similar problem that you know of? Or is this simply a problem for written English?
      Regards, Kathleen

      1. jeremy gardner

        Yes and no is the answer. There are problems with all languages (even Croat, which has hardly started). However, the situation with French is more similar to that of the “minor” languages. These days, the default language is English, so maybe writing in French is a choice usually made by people who are confident in that language. Personally, I have not seen a French language document that was not written by a Francophone, or at least a speaker of a Latin language in years.

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