Suddenly translations are too expensive
Everything can be translated into English, including snacks in the canteen, says Bart Braun. Why is it so hard to get translations, just when internationals want a say?
Bart Braun
Wednesday 17 April 2019

Finally, we have found that rarest of species – a student who wants to actually do something for university democracy – and suddenly there are problems. Norwegian Viktor Blichfeldt (International Studies) has a seat on the university council for the Democratic Students Party. He does not speak any Dutch, or at least, not at a level at which he can participate in university decisions.

At this university, Dutch is the official language. It’s not just university rules, it’s also laid down in the laws on education, so Dutch is spoken at the university council meetings; Blichfeldt is assisted by a “language buddy” (an interpreter, but cheaper).

The snag is that the council has to discuss documents – policy papers, reports, and so on – but the papers are in Dutch. So, Blichfeldt still can’t do his work for the council properly. The university, however, does not want to have all that paperwork translated into English or Norwegian, just for one student.

And if this was just about Blichfeldt, the solution would be easy. Why not give him a crash course in Dutch as a reward for his hard work and compensate him for any delay in his degree programme. Get a PhD position ready for him too – after all, we really don’t want to lose anyone mad enough to become a member of the university council and to learn to fluent Dutch.

But it’s not just about him.

In the past few years, the university has invested a lot of time and money in its internationalisation programme. The English-language bachelor programmes are overflowing, and about a third of the master’s degree students here are not Dutch. It’s generated millions for Leiden. Dutch might be the official language of the administrative division of the university, but in many research groups, the main language is English because the staff come here from all over the globe.

And if those people want to exercise their right to be consulted on university decisions – a right that is laid down in the laws on education, after all – it suddenly seems like too much trouble. Suddenly, translations are too expensive.

Which is odd. It was no problem to translate information brochures for students. English-speaking students were sent to fairs all over the world to persuade school leavers to come to Leiden. The university website is available in two languages, job vacancies are translated into English, whole programmes, in fact, even though lecturers have complained about the amount of trouble it produces. Adapting the range of food in the canteens to an international cuisine has seemingly proved too complicated, but the little notices parked alongside the mind-numbingly boring Dutch sandwiches have been translated into English, including snacks in the canteen (“crispy minced chicken hot dog”).

In other words: if internationals bring money or labour, translations are no trouble at all. So, that makes it a bit harder to believe that translating documents is a problem at other times. The politicians want more internationalisation and they want Dutch to remain the main language, leaving the universities to sort it out. You better stand, there’s no turning back.