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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.