Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Faux-utilitarian Prejudices

It is disappointing, although perhaps hardly unexpected, to see another gratuitous attack on Scots in The Belfast Telegraph, this time from Eric Waugh.

One glimmer in the darkness is that the commentator, for all his proud display of ignorance, at least recognises that we are dealing with the same language on either side of the Sheuch. Nuanced points, on the other hand, are predictably lost on him. For example, the translation offered to visitors to the Scottish Parliament is noticeably timid, while Ulster-Scots translation has been exuberantly over the top, disparate, parasitic and very often incomprehensible. Different though the problems are, they may have the same root: the inadequacy of the paradigm behind their commissioning, namely, that the translations are necessary for communicative purposes, since not having them would disenfranchise people.

In Scotland, the response has been to forge translations not from the full resources of traditional Scots as attested in the SND and other dictionaries but from the impoverished speech of the urban working classes, their putative target group. In Northern Ireland, activists have gone in the other direction entirely, attempting to justify their commissions by producing translations whose "common denominator", in Aodán Mac Póilin's words, "is to be as different to English, and occasionally Scots, as possible". Were the authorities to make clear to translators that their task was to recreate a high-register Scots that is lucid, consistent, intellectually rigorous and a plausible continuation of historic practice — the authentic voice of an ancient commonweal — the result might be very different.

The latter reaches of Waugh's article merely rehearse the faux-utilitarian prejudices of Protestant Ulstermen (if you are reading this in Scotland, think Lesley Riddoch). It is "out of hand" that Irish should be an official EU language, since translation now accounts for "some 1% of its budget". That budget, of course, is is drawn from 27 countries, with Ireland's contribution North and South so small that the well-paid translators whom Waugh so envies would have to spend only the merest fraction of their wages during visits home for their country to make a net profit from the language's official status. Nor is it true that translation costs are ballooning. If anything, enlargement has encouraged the use of English as an auxiliary during the translation process, which means better utilisation of translators.

Perhaps the most objectionable part of the article is where relatively nugatory spending on keeping minoritised languages alive (which in Northern Ireland probably saves millions otherwise lost to civil unrest) is contrasted with the huge spending on the West's elective wars in the Muslim world, as if the latter were somehow unavoidable.

Ultimately, the piece confirms what we already knew: that ordinary Unionists care very little for linguistic culture; and that too many Ulster-Scots activists hate Irish more than they love Scots (Waugh refers to Irish-language activists as their "rival champions", although there is no ineluctable reason for that to be the case). The liberal Unionist and long-time proponent of both leids Ian Adamson refers in a forthcoming article to "a difference in philosophical approach between those who would see the promotion of Ulster-Scots as something of a political tool in their opposition to the Irish language and my Ullans movement". Those of us who believe in linguistic diversity plough our own furrow.

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