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Putting an accent on the Maltese language

When it comes to languages, Maltese is as distinctive as it gets. Not only does it consist of an eclectic blend of other tongues, but it is also considered to be a unique branch of Arabic that has undergone Latinisation over the course of several centuries. There are just over half a million native Maltese speakers on the planet, comprising mainly of the population of Malta and the many thousands of expats living across the EU and New World countries.

And yet, even though Malta’s main language is quite niche, it is still recognised as one of the 24 official languages of the European Union. In fact, it is the only Semitic language used in European Institutions in an official capacity. This is truly an impressive feat for such an underrepresented language, but there are still many issues that Maltese faces on a European level.

In a bid to mitigate these challenges, a group of Maltese translators have been investing a lot of energy to ensure the correct use and development of our language. Since December 2009, a publication called l-aċċent has been dealing with these issues by bringing together the knowledge of people from within the European Institutions, academics at the University of Malta, and other individuals that have a vested interest in the Maltese language.

But, before we get into the nitty gritty of l-aċċent, it is important to understand that translating official European Institution documents into Maltese is no simple task. Louise Vella, a translator working at the European Commission and founding member of l-aċċent’s editorial board, is well aware of the difficulties that persist in her profession. “Maltese, like all other languages, is evolving at a fast rate,” she explains, so grammar and terminology can be quite cumbersome during the translation process.

There is currently no official handbook for the Maltese language, apart from the Tagħrif fuq il-Kitba Maltija text that was written in 1924 and only superficially updated in the 1980s and 1990s. This lack of an official linguistic yardstick is further compounded by the complications of translating official papers. These often contain complex technical jargon on subjects ranging from engineering, geology, and politics. Translators are not expected to be experts in these fields, so the process of converting text from an official language of the EU into Maltese can be an arduous one.

Luckily for Louise and other Maltese translators, there are several tools and networks that have been developed by terminologists and experts in Malta to help them deal with translation and language issues.

As Louise points out, the translators of the European Commission “do not work in a vacuum”. Other European Institutions including the European Parliament, the Council of the EU, and the European Court of Justice all have their own Maltese translators that work in their own specific environment. There will be a number of problems that will be common to each translator, so delivering consistent results when it comes to the Maltese language is paramount. As such, l-aċċent was created to act as a platform for translators to share problems, discuss difficulties, propose solutions, and share information.

A group of Maltese translators have been investing a lot of energy to ensure the correct use and development of our language

The initiative was taken in 2009 by the then Spanish head of unit Xavier Valeri Cobo, who was also the acting Head of the Maltese Department. Seeing as the Spanish already had their own in-house publication called Punto y Coma, Valeri Cobo urged the Maltese department to follow suit. To date, Maltese is one of only five languages in the Directorate General of Translation to have their own publication.

However, implementing the concept of l-aċċent was not that easy, especially when one considers that translators have a lot of work on their plate. A number of individuals with previous experience in publications proposed some ideas and the first editorial board came up with the content structure that is still in use till today. Divided in three sections, l-aċċent deals with written and spoken Maltese, terminology, and other issues.

The translators soon realised the value of l-aċċent, so they started making more time for it. “It is a lot of work that requires organisation, coordination, commitment and determination, but it pays off”, explains Louise. Even though most of the work is conducted by the Maltese language department at the Commission, there are also regular contributions from translators of other Institutions and external experts that add value to the publication on a voluntary basis.

As there was no other Maltese publication that dealt entirely with language and translation issues, l-aċċent’s popularity has exceeded expectations. Initially distributed amongst Maltese translators in Brussels and Luxembourg, this publication currently reaches students of the Department of Maltese and other individuals interested in the language. With a circulation of almost 1,000 copies, it has become a serendipitous success.

Ultimately, this publication wants to promote the good use of the Maltese language and provide its readers with the same tools and resources used by Maltese translators in their official capacities. Louise also argues that l-aċċent could be of great use to the general public to better understand the distinction between certain subject-specific terminology.

For example, how does one distinguish, in Maltese, between revoking and repealing a law? What distinguishes the terms reat and delitt? Such terms and others are dealt with by lawyer linguists from the European Court of Justice who regularly contribute researched articles for each edition of this publication. In addition, two full time terminologists also prepare a terminology supplement published with every issue of l-aċċent which deals with a specific field. The current edition includes a glossary of terms in both Maltese and English relating to the European Common Agricultural Policy.

However, the brains behind this publication are so far very happy with the results. “L-aċċent began as an experiment in communication and evolved into a useful tool used by its readers”, according to Louise. L-aċċent’s challenge is to not lose focus of its original aim of acting as a bridge between Maltese translators working in different institutions, but at the same to maintain the momentum and interest of students, academic, and freelance translators that use the Maltese language as a tool in their profession. With a healthy following spread across Luxembourg, Brussels, Malta and beyond, l-aċċent seems to be heading on the right trajectory.

l-aċċent can be received for free at home, or downloaded from: http://ec.europa.eu/translation/maltese/magazine/mt_magazine_en.htm. Those interested in receiving the magazine can send their name, email, and mailing address on l-accent@ec.europa.eu, or reach the team on their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/dgt.laccent.

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