The two-edged sword of imposed multilingualism

by Terence MacNamee

In his article “From Englishization to Imposed Multilingualism”, Israeli academic Danny Dor talks about language on the Internet. Is English taking over the world as a result of the communications revolution, as many people believe, or could there be something else going on? Dor says large American companies really impose multilingualism as part of their globalization strategy. They know that their product, or at least the software and documentation that run it, has to be translated into all sorts of “local” languages so that consumers in other countries will use it.

If he is right, the Internet means not drowning in English but getting a boost for other languages. However, Dor makes another interesting point. He says that these international players themselves are likely to replace the “local” apparatus of dictionaries and academies as the source of standards for the various national languages. Thus power and control over languages may be redistributed.

Haven’t we seen all this before? When the Reformation happened in Europe, the pressure was on from the Reformers to translate the Bible into all sorts of languages so that ordinary folks could understand it. In doing so, the Reformers in each country often created new standard literary languages from scratch. What’s more, minor regional languages got a boost, because they were written down for the first time in Bibles and the endless religious propaganda being fired between Reformers and Counter-Reformers. This was surely the first instance of “imposed multilingualism”. And it altered the linguistic landscape of Europe in ways that its instigators could hardly have foreseen.

Translation can alter power relations in the world, but it all depends on who is doing the translating, and from what language into what language. When someone has power, his language will be the source language; for everyone else, their languages will be the target languages. They will hear his message in their own language, but they probably won’t get to send their messages back to him. I would expect that most translation in the world now involves content being translated from English into other languages, not the reverse. English is “upstream”, the other languages are “downstream”. The ideas, the trends, the innovations come from the upstream language, not from the downstream ones. This is not because the upstream language or those who speak it are superior, but just that water doesn’t flow uphill. And the downstream languages, over time, are likely to be altered and reshaped by the pressure of the upstream language.

So the English-speaking world, though it may be imposing multilingualism as Dor says, may well get to reshape all those languages in its own image. Some will be more resistant than others, of course.