Brexit: British government's botched German translation of Chequers white paper met with ridicule

The translation was branded ‘unreadable’ by German speakers

Jon Stone
Thursday 19 July 2018 18:06 BST
House of Commons suspended while government hands out copies of Brexit white paper

The British government is facing ridicule from German-speaking Brussels officials and diplomats after Whitehall botched an attempt to translate its new Brexit white paper into other languages.

The move to provide translations of Theresa May’s Brexit plan is being seen in Brussels as an attempt to bypass the European Commission and negotiate directly with member states.

But the approach appears to have backfired after claims that the translation was “unreadable” and written in strange “archaic” language featuring made-up compound words.

Even the headline description of the white paper on the government’s official website contained a grammar mistake, describing it as being written in “Deutsche” instead of the correct spelling omitting the letter “e”.

Asked about the translation, one native German-speaking senior EU official said: “To be honest I haven’t seen it. I have worked with the English translation so far and while my English isn’t perfect, the questions I would have are not related to language problems and more related to content.”

Another German speaker who had read the paper told The Independent that the language used was “old school to the max” and made Brexit sound “very mythical” because of the “archaic and needlessly complex” language.

“It’s written really weirdly. It reminds me of Old German texts,” they said.

Boris Johnson: 'A fog of self-doubt descended' in the 18 months following Brexit

The document faced ridicule on social media, too. Twitter user Oscar D Torson branded the “Weisspaper” as “awful to read” and “not German”.

“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.

Leafing through one section, the user added: “What does ‘Fischergemeinden’ even mean? People praying for fish?”

The lack of foreign language skills in Whitehall has been a perennial issue for the civil service. In 2015, Sir Tony Brenton, a former British ambassador to Moscow, told a House of Lords inquiry into the subject 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.

In a separate inquiry, the House of Commons foreign affairs committee warned that just 38 per cent of “speaker slots” at the Foreign Office were filled by someone who could speak the language to the specified level.

Further government cuts would “probably” mean a significant reduction in Britain’s world influence and a scaling back of its foreign policy ambitions, they concluded.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in