Lost in Translation

William MacLeodDr Wilson McLeod scrutinises the place of the Gaelic language in the independence debate and criticises the Scottish Government’s ‘illogical’ decision not to issue a bilingual ballot paper in the referendum 

It is a commonplace that language plays only a small role in Scottish nationalism, in contrast to counterpart movements in Catalonia, Quebec and elsewhere. While this is an oversimplification, it is indisputable that language issues have not been prominent in the current debate over Scottish independence. There are also practical reasons for this limited attention, for the Scottish Parliament already controls most of the areas of policy in which language issues tend to arise, most obviously education and culture. Nor has there been an extensive debate conducted in Gaelic concerning the pros and cons of independence. Gaelic counterparts of pro-independence groups such as Yes Scotland have recently been set up on Facebook  and Twitter, for example, but have attracted few followers; by and large, Gaelic speakers, all of whom are bilingual, appear content to take part in (or ignore!) the mainstream English-medium debate.

Insisting on an English-only policy in relation to the momentous decision on independence is at best a missed opportunity, at worst a calculated derogation that goes against the stated policies of the Government and the Parliament to promote the language.

A potentially significant issue has recently come to the fore, however: should the referendum ballot paper be bilingual, presenting the question in Gaelic as well as English?

The Scottish Government has so far refused to authorise a bilingual ballot paper, angering many Gaelic activists and organisations. In response to a parliamentary question from Angus MacDonald MSP, the Deputy First Minister stated on 25 February 2013  that:

The Scottish Government does not plan to provide a Gaelic language version of the ballot paper for the independence referendum.

As part of the question assessment process, the Electoral Commission tested the proposed question with voters who speak Gaelic as a first language. The Commission found that these participants could understand the question easily and experienced no difficulties in completing the ballot paper. . .

Voter information will be available in other languages, including Gaelic, on request. Counting officers may also choose to display a translation of the ballot paper at polling stations if they consider this appropriate. This is standard practice for all elections.

The Deputy First Minister reiterated this position on 27 April in a letter to Angus MacDonald in his capacity as convener of the Cross-Party Group on Gaelic.

On 16 May, a petition demanding a bilingual ballot paper was lodged with the Scottish Parliament by Gaelic campaigner Iain MacLeòid, president of An Comunn Gaidhealach. The petition had attracted more than 700 signatures by its closing date on 5 June. The issue is now being taken up by the Scottish Parliament’s Referendum (Scotland) Bill Committee in its consideration of the referendum bill, most recently at the stage 1 debate on 23 May. In its written submission to the Committee, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the statutory language board, expressed its disappointment at the Government’s position and submitted a draft version of a bilingual ballot paper, posing the question ‘Am bu chòir do dh’Alba a bhith na dùthaich neo-eisimileach?’ alongside ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ Other Gaelic organisations and supporters have lent support to this view, and there has been extensive discussion in Gaelic newspaper columns, blogs and other on-line fora.

The principal argument advanced by those demanding a bilingual ballot paper is that Gaelic speakers should be able to express their view on this historic referendum in their language of choice. The Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 has the aim of ‘securing the status of Gaelic as an official language of Scotland commanding equal respect with the English language’. An underpinning principle is that Gaelic should be legitimated and encouraged in Scottish public life generally. Insisting on an English-only policy in relation to the momentous decision on independence is at best a missed opportunity, at worst a calculated derogation that goes against the stated policies of the Government and the Parliament to promote the language.

Whatever the stated rationale for the Government’s position, it seems reasonably clear that political calculation plays a role. As part of its general strategy of endeavouring not to ‘frighten the horses’ in relation to the referendum vote, the Government may well fear that a bilingual English-Gaelic referendum paper could alienate some wavering voters who might (quite unrealistically) see Gaelic as some kind of nationalist totem. A number of Gaelic-speaking independence supporters have backed this view, arguing that the symbolic value of a bilingual ballot paper is outweighed by this political risk.

It is unfortunate that the issue of Gaelic in electoral materials was not dealt with at some earlier point, with bilingual ballots being introduced in a less momentous election and slowly normalised. In Wales, by way of contrast, bilingual Welsh-English ballots have been used not only in the 1979, 1997 and 2011 devolution referenda, but in all Assembly and local authority elections.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the Government’s approach to this issue has been the rationale provided by the Electoral Commission for not issuing a bilingual ballot paper: that all the Gaelic speakers who were shown the test ballot stated that they were able to understand the English version. (The Government rather than the Commission is properly to blame here, as the Government chose not to ask [p. 35] the Commission to test a bilingual ballot paper or a version with a Gaelic option). This argument completely misunderstands the rationale for Gaelic promotion in contemporary Scotland. All Gaelic speakers can speak and understand English – not least because of the government education policies from 1872 onwards that made almost no provision for Gaelic. Materials and services are not offered in Gaelic because Gaelic speakers cannot understand the English ones, but because Gaelic is recognised as a language deeply rooted in Scotland that is entitled to ‘equal respect’ under the law. The principle that no provision will be made for Gaelic except for those who cannot understand English is entirely out of keeping not only with the Gaelic Language Act but also with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which the UK Government ratified in 2001.

Were this principle to be adopted more widely, a wide range of promotional initiatives, in education, broadcasting and elsewhere, would need to be rolled back. For example, the Scottish Government (and many other public bodies) produce a range of written materials in Gaelic. Ironically, these include the consultation document on the referendum itself. It is obviously illogical for the Government to solicit the views of Gaelic speakers on the issue of independence through the medium of Gaelic and then insist that the final, determinative expression of their views be made in English. However, if the Government’s position is essentially an issue of political calculation, then principle and logic may not necessarily win the day.

Dr Wilson McLeod is Senior Lecturer in Celtic and Head of the Celtic and Scottish Studies Department at the University of Edinburgh 

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9 Responses to Lost in Translation

  1. Pingback: Lost in Translation | Bella Caledonia

  2. Niall Tracey says:

    Logic is a tricky thing, though, isn’t it? Something is logical if and only if it follows from the given premises, so an argument built on false premises may be wrong, but it is not illogical. Political calculation is nothing if not logical.

    I agree that the process by which they ruled out Gaelic was more than a little convoluted. But the whole process was born into a mire of controversy, with arguments over legitimacy and constitutional validity, and so sticking to the UK rulebook is (logically) the most defensible position.

    I myself am in favour of independence, and even when support for independence was much lower than it currently is, I supported the idea of a referendum. My friends asked me “why go to the expense and inconvenience of a referendum if everyone’s going to answer no anyway?” and my answer was simple: because once it’s done, it’s done, and we’ll all have to quit arguing and live with the decision. I would say that it’s not just a matter of “don’t frighten the horses” but of “not rocking the boat”, because we’ll all still have to live with each other whatever the outcome.

    Now, to put the boot on the other foot, where is the logic in the call for Gaelic on the referendum paper? You yourself talk about its “symbolic value”, and that is all it would have. In fact, this whole issue is more symbolic than you give it credit for – it is a symbol of the internet age, where we readily jump on a cause du jour which offers us an “easy” campaign with no long-term commitment, but similarly with no long-term benefit.

    Sustainability is the watchword in modern development, with government grants and charity money increasingly going to those who can create something that can support and maintain itself, at least in part. But the referendum question is not sustainable, and pushing on it, even winning the argument, was never going to create any lasting effects, making it wasted effort. When the issue first arose, there was a narrow window where the momentum created by the referendum could have been used to drum up support to lobby Whitehall on the issue of all ballots.

    But that opportunity was missed a long time ago.

    • Mac an Srannaich says:

      ‘S mathaid gum b’fhiach seo a radh sa Ghaidhlig cuideachd, ach canaidh mi sa Bheurla e gus an tuig a h-uile duine.

      It would be a serious mistake to assume that a) Gaelic’s place on the ballot would be purely symbolic or that b) Gaelic’s place on the ballot paper should be considered only if it’s going to get a Yes vote. In the first instance, having your own language on the ballot paper – particularly in Na h-Eileanan an Iar and a’ Ghaidhealtachd – would be a vindication of the struggle for equal status and recognition of the fact that Gaelic is here to stay and grow. It would also bring us into line with the Welsh, who embarrass us even more than usual in this instance by having had the Police Commissioners ballot papers in both languages. If a few PC Plods down in Wales can be chosen in Welsh, I think it not only logical but blatantly bloody obvious that the most important question ever asked of the Scottish people be available to be answered in English and in Gaidhlig.

      To the 2nd point, regarding the implications of Gaelic on the ballot for the actual result, there is absolutely no evidence of it causing any more anti-Gaelic feeling. Are we that ashamed we can’t let folk know that – shock horror! – there is another language in this country, spoken by a significant-if-shy minority? Are we truly scared of a few unsightly fellows under the bridge who will complain? There is no cost argument, since ballot papers will presumably be printed differently for each electoral region anyway. The most important argument against this train of thought, however, is that it sees Gaelic not as a language, not as a means of communication, but as a tool to be considered for the result of the vote. Aside from being illogical and insulting the intelligence of the Scottish people to think that they would be swayed to vote no because Alex Salmond is going to send them all to Bagh a’ Chaisteil to turn into Barrachs, it also ignored the substantial number of Gaels who shall – unless the SNP gets their act together – be voting No. Gaels in the Yes and No camps both need to make sure that Gaelic is heard, and for that reason a cross-campaign effort is needed so that the Edinburgh-centric parties sit up and take note.

      • Niall Tracey says:

        It would also bring us into line with the Welsh

        That was part of my point — a campaign to get equal footing with Welsh would be a Westminster campaign, which would have neatly decoupled the fallacious (but worryingly pervasive) link often drawn between Gaelic and nationalism, both small and big N.

        Westminster’s devolution of language to Holyrood makes parity with Welsh effectively impossible, but we can (and must!) push on the issue of ballot papers in Westminster. If it was established in UK electoral rules, the referendum ballot would be bilingual, and bilingual ballots would have to continue post-referendum, whichever way the vote goes.

        But the current debate focuses people’s energy on a one-off event, which would set no useful precedent, and would therefore have no lasting benefits to anyone.

        • Mac an Srannaich says:

          The recent Bord na Gaidhlig survey, where over 50% of Scots wanted the opportunity for their children to be taught in Gaelic, and 90% for children in the Western Isles, would question the assertion that Gaelic is coupled with nationalism. Perhaps a survey of Daily Mail readers would be different, but for the majority, that is not the case.

          Parity with Welsh is not impossible – MPs such as Ian Davidson have previously expressed support for such a move. When it is impossible, is when the Scottish Government is about as devoted to Gaelic as the Daily Mail. Sturgeon’s comments belied her incompetence and lack of knowledge on the matter. To claim that the referendum on an independent Scotland is not somehow important or wouldn’t set a useful precedent, when it is the most important legislation to arrive in Holyrood and has your own criteria of Westminster support – is illogical. Trying to use “not now, but later” arguments is what we’ve been promised for decades now, and it doesn’t wash. All ignoring the issue really says, is that we don’t care if the referendum is in Gaelic or not. Which is nothing short of abandoning Gaelic to English as we can all, so surprisingly to our Deputy First Minister, speak English well enough anyway.

          • Niall Tracey says:

            But I’m not saying “not now, but later,” I’m saying, “now, but not that.”

            My argument: campaign for all ballots including this one. That would simultateously undermine any claims of politicking with the referendum, and guarantee lasting chance, rather than a one-off.

            And it would cost no more in terms of effort.

          • Niall Tracey says:

            Sorry — that should be “guarantee lasting change”.

  3. john macfarlane says:

    As far as I can recall (!!) I filled out my census form in Gaelic so why can’t I say’ cha bu chòir ‘ in my own language ? Is this refusal and lack of support from Gaelic -speaking government ministers a foretaste of the fate that awaits our language in an ‘independent’ Scotland?

  4. Kara's Aunty says:

    When we win our independence, Gaelic should become mandatory for at least two hours a day in all Scottish primary schools. Think of the jobs alone this would create! But, more importantly, we would be reclaiming an important part of our cultural heritage – one that was almost wiped out, thanks to the so-called ‘Union’.

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