After Whitehall botched an attempt to translate its new Brexit white paper into other languages, the British government is faced with ridicule from German-speaking officials in Brussels. The white paper is being seen as an attempt to bypass the European Commission and negotiate directly with member states.

However, this appears to have backfired after the translation received a hail of criticism and confusion from native speakers who noticed strange, obsolete or even made-up words. This wasn’t the only mistake though, as the headline description for the white paper on the Government’s official website contained a grammatical error. The headline described the white paper as being written in “Deutsche” instead of the correct spelling “Deutsch”.

The document was also criticised on social media, too. According to The Independent, one Twitter user branded the white paper as “awful to read”.

“It was translated by someone who learned German in school to a decent level but who never really spoke it, and who is also not a professional translator,” he said.

The poor quality of the translation has caused the ITI (Institute of Translation and Interpreting) to be extremely concerned about the haphazard way in which the document was initially translated, and that the revision and approval processes did not identify the issues. ITI’s Chair Sarah Bawa Mason has since written a letter to the Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, expressing the Institute’s concern.

The ITI’s official website shared some of the Chair Sarah Bawa Mason comments and she stated:

“We appreciate the time pressures and volume of work associated with the project, and we would not wish to criticise the work of individuals without understanding all the circumstances. However, the translation failings do indicate a process problem – both in terms of procurement and quality assurance procedures from project start to finish. This would be a concern at any time, but particularly in relation to a document that is so important for international diplomacy.

“Traditionally, expectations in other countries about the ability and willingness of the UK to communicate effectively in other languages have not been particularly high, and, unfortunately, the White Paper will not have helped to modify this view.

“Hopefully, this will be something of a wake-up call that gets everyone behind communicating as effectively as possible for Brexit, and in our post-Brexit dealings for diplomacy and trade when language skills and cultural empathy will be more important than ever.”

The institute has offered to work with the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade in order to make sure Britain has a strong and professional language services sector after Brexit, for the long-term benefit of the economy.

The lack of foreign language skills in Whitehall has been a key issue for the civil service. In 2015, the former British ambassador to Moscow, Sir Tony Brenton, told a House of Lords inquiry that Britain had been left in the dark during the Ukraine crisis because the Foreign Office lacked enough Russian speakers to fully comprehend information about the situation.

A separate incident is that the House of Commons foreign affairs committee warned that just 38% of speaker slots at the Foreign Office were filled by someone who could speak the language to the required level. They concluded that further government cuts would “probably” mean a large reduction in Britain’s world influence and its foreign policy ambitions.

There are 22 versions of the white paper in languages such as Irish, Welsh and Maltese, countries in which most people are conversant in English. Perhaps, they might find it easier to simply read the paper in English than attempt to puzzle out unusual compound words in their own language as one Dutch Twitter user wrote: “Dear UK government. We appreciate the effort and you probably have no clue, but please stick to English if you want us to understand you. This is horrible. Kind regards, The Netherlands.”

We think the UK Government should use Language Insight for their translation needs next time!