Monday, 26 December 2011

"As the British Government now employs Esperanto translators"

Does it? Where? In what capacity exactly? I ask this after running into another repetition of a factoid I've seen quite a lot on language sites recently: the claim via a piece of boilerplate pro-Esperanto comment spam that the UK government employs Esperanto translators:

As the British Government now employs Esperanto translators it has ceased to be a hobby.
- various sites.

I've nothing against Esperanto as a language or any doubts that it's a more significant phenomenon than a "hobby", but this just didn't ring true. A little Googling finds firstly that this meme seems to date from late 2008, when the British right-wing press carried stories criticising the language translation budget of NHS Direct, the National Health Service's patient helpline. A typical exposition:

It's great news for the nation's Cherokee speakers. Or it would be if there were any here.

The Health Service spends £255,000 a year translating its services into 160 languages, including the Native American tongue.

But, like many of the others such as Akan and Cebuano, Cherokee does not have a single registered speaker here.

The telephone helpline NHS Direct even provides advice in the invented language Esperanto - even though it is highly unlikely that any of its 1,000 speakers worldwide would not be able to speak a more common language.

The cost of interpreting and translating for the benefit of UK residents who do not speak English was revealed by the Conservatives after a parliamentary question.

Tory health spokesman Mike Penning said: 'Particularly in a time of economic uncertainty, the Government must ensure that the best possible use is made of finite NHS resources.

'People will question the need to translate services into languages like Cherokee and Esperanto. Most importantly, spending on such provision is diverting funds from frontline services.'

- £250,000 lost in translation by NHS for providing interpreters, Daniel Martin, Daily Mail Online, 18th October 2008.

The quotation from Mr Penning doesn't appear in Hansard, the official record of parliamentary proceedings, so it must have been commentary to the press after the parliamentary question. The question itself, however, does appear for 13th October 2008:

NHS Direct: Translation Services

Mike Penning: To ask the Secretary of State for Health (1) which non-English languages are offered to users of NHS Direct services; and what the total budgetary allocation for NHS Direct translation and language services is; [225324]

(2) what assessment he has made of the efficacy of NHS Direct translation and language services in providing equitable and accessible medical advice for non-English speakers. [225325]

Mr. Bradshaw: NHS Direct offers interpretation and translation services for all callers to telephone services through Language Line in the following languages:

entries snipped
many more entries snipped

The budgetary allocation for these services for 2008-09 is £255,000.

- Hansard, 13th Oct, 2008
The newspaper story is typical Daily Mail garbage. It's  not as if huge amounts were being spent on routine translation of documents into languages scarcely used in the UK. NHS Direct interpretation works on an as-required basis only; you want medical advice, you give them a call, and if you need a non-English language they'll find a speaker. So none of this budget would go toward translating or interpreting an obscure language unless a speaker called who needed it - and for many of the languages on the list, such as Esperanto, that's highly unlikely in the UK.

As to whether this counts as the government "employing" Esperanto translators, it doesn't, any more than I "employ" a cleaner if I hire a company that employs one. NHS Direct subcontracted the work to the language service mentioned, Language Line, a private translation and interpretation company based in Canary Wharf, London. I don't know if NHS Direct uses it now, but it still exists and provides its services entirely by subcontracting in turn to a portfolio of freelancers ("It should be noted that all interpreters engaged by Language Line Services are self-employed freelance contractors"). Its list of languages served is online - Esperanto is no longer on it.

So, to summarise: in 2008, a wing of the government-funded NHS had potential access - no evidence of routine use - to Esperanto translation and interpretation, via two layers of subcontracting.

This hardly supports the claim that "the British Government now employs Esperanto translators", with its strong implication that there are multiple Esperanto translators directly on its payroll.

Addendum: I just found a little more about this.

A forum post about Esperanto Day 2011 cites this Hansard archive for 16 March 2011, which contains the following section:

Departmental Interpreters

Ian Austin: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions for which services provided by (a) his Department and (b) its associated public bodies interpreters provide services in a language or languages other than English; how many interpreters are employed or subcontracted for each non-English language; and what estimate he has made of the cost to the public purse of interpretation costs incurred in the latest period for which figures are available. [42898]

Chris Grayling: The information requested is as follows:

For DWP (including CMEC):

(a) The following is a list of the languages that have been serviced:
entries snipped
more entries snipped

(b) The total number of subcontracted interpreters available for use is approximately 2,200. Data are not held for the number of interpreters that are employed or subcontracted for each non-English language.

"Data are not held" says it all. Even this more recent source provides no actual evidence whether or not Esperanto translators / interpreters are "employed" (as opposed to subcontracted) nor any information as to whether or not they've been used to an extent that justifies crowing about Esperanto's significance to the UK government.  We only know what "languages that have been serviced" - that is, support has officially been on offer - not the extent to which that support was used, if at all.

Addendum: OK, so I just I just had a comment from the comment spammer himself, Brian Barker: "This seems to be yet another knee jerk reaction to Esperanto's progress". Not at all. I think Esperanto is deeply cool. All I object to is exaggerated claims, and comment spamming (however worthy the cause).

- Ray


  1. This seems to be yet another knee jerk reaction to Esperanto's progress.

    You will be saying next that the Pope did not speak Esperanto in his Christmas "Urbi et Orbi" address, even though this was also popular. See

  2. Thanks for the effort you have put into hunting down the origin of this factoid. I speak Esperanto but had wondered about this myself - although you found more references than I did.

  3. Brian, not at all; I think Esperanto is brilliant. If I had anything against it, believe me, I'd have long since said so, as I need a constant supply of blog topics.

    It just irritates me when something is promoted with a claim not directly supported by the evidence - which in this case does not support the assertion that the government "employs" Esperanto translators in the normal sense of the word (i.e. directly and permanently on its payroll).

    The chief thing you could do to help Esperanto would be more engage in more intelligent publicity. To me at least, comment spamming often minimally relevant forums with the same boilerplate lecture every time Planet Word is mentioned, or someone says something negative about Esperanto, comes across as geeky, obsessive and socially clueless - in fact reinforcing exactly the stereotype that conlang enthusiasts are constantly fighting against. Is that the impression you want to give of Esperanto speakers?