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Tomorrow's Europe and the language problem

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A freelance writer and editor based in London, J Clive Matthews is Managing Editor of openDemocracy's EU and deliberative democracy blog, dLiberation.

In the real world he has co-authored two books and edited numerous others (ranging in subject-matter from movies to modern Russian politics), been acting editor on a glossy history and travel magazine, editorial consultant for a big name women's magazine, a freelance news editor for AOL UK, worked in both the House of Commons and the European Commission, and contributed to publications as diverse as Starburst and the Times Literary Supplement.

Best known as Nosemonkey online, he has been blogging about British and European politics daily for several years both at his own blog and sites like The Sharpener, General Election 2005 (now defunct), AgoraVox, France 24 and the Washington Post / Newsweek's Postglobal, as well as about movies for the BBC, and has been shortlisted for blog awards by the likes of the Guardian, Deutsche Welle International and the Weblog Awards, amongst others.

Nice overview article from one of Britain's leading pro-EU writers, Timothy Garton Ash, on the events of last weekend over at the Guardian. I can't say I spotted him amongst the attendees, but there were quite a few.

Garton Ash seems to have come to similar conclusions about the poll as I am heading towards, however: "More interesting than any result is the experiment itself." The reason? Simply because this was indeed the first time that people from all 27 member states were brought together in one room and allowed to chat amongst themselves in their own languages, all simultaneously interpreted.

Garton Ash mentions the Tower of Babel - a comparison made more than once during the weekend's events. Indeed, the Tomorrow's Europe poll was like the biblical Babel story in reverse - many languages effectivley becoming one and enabling co-operation, rather than one language becoming many and preventing it.

But, of course, there are always the practicalities to get in the way. There were a number of technical hitches throughout the weekend, interpretation fading in and out, and occasionally jumping to another language as the channels got crossed. Some of the interpreters were more skilled than others, leading to the occasional sensation that something significant had been missed. The sheer impossibility of having a proper discussion between people of 27 countries speaking in more than 20 languages when that would necessitate around 50 interpreters working at the same time ensured that the small groups were broken down to ensure participants were deliberating in no more than three different languages at once.

And if the practicalities got in the way even for a group of just 362 people, just what are the chances of breaking down the language barriers amongst the 500 million people that make up the EU as a whole?

"This," Garton Ash notes, "not any mind-numbing minutiae of a treaty, is the European challenge: to create fellow feeling while still speaking different languages."

In this, did the Tomorrow's Europe succeed? From what I saw of it yes - yes it did.


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