Europe's security concerns accelerate shifts in translation standards

March 2016

The recent attacks in Brussels have produced the usual calls within the European Union for increased cooperation. The overall expectation, however, is that the member states will continue placing increasingly greater focus on their respective nation-state interests. Nonetheless, there are some indicators of meaningful coordination taking place with regards to the translation standards conventions adopted by EU countries and other nations involved in the counter-terrorism effort. Whereas North American T&I standardization is generally viewed as a nascent endeavor--with some industries having but a couple budding certification bodies still vying for official nationwide accreditation and its corresponding prominence--the Pan-European standardization culture is by contrast a nuanced tapestry of interweaving bureaucracies, each country balancing out the diverse standard organizations in a unique fashion. Translators with the ability to recognize where these shifts will be occurring will benefit as they adjust their services accordingly.

One particular challenge to this regard that has been highlighted of late has been the tracking of the movement of peoples into Europe from Arabic-speaking countries. Issues arise as they relate to the standards of practice for the transliteration of Arabic names, and the translation of documentation originating from Arabic-speaking countries. These practices vary amongst the nations comprising the EU, and there are scant mechanisms in place to cross-reference names and other information efficiently. This issue pops up in national security events as well as the more mundane running of daily life.


To take the simplest case for illustrative purposes, last month an Algerian man was barred entry on an Alitalia flight from Istanbul to Rome on account of the spelling of his name, which on his passport reads “Nacim”, in keeping with ICAO regulation. Life in Turkey had him observing a different convention altogether, spelling his name “Nassim” on documentation there. Turkey has a complicated linguistic history with its own unique 1928 Romanization of its previous Arabic-based script. However, it is not unlike any other country in that it would have a unique transliteration practice in the first place. Also commonplace is that names and other pertinent data should thereby be lost in the fray after successive generations of transliteration, as populations transit along a route of countries with such diverse writing systems as Syria, Turkey, Greece, and so forth.  


A recent Annual Overview from Frontex reveals apprehension regarding the practice of changing one’s identity “by using a new legally issued passport with altered personal data, such as changed names or alternative transliteration of names … [B]y pretending to be a different person, migrants try to avoid an existing ban”. To secure a visa, one must submit documentation that undergoes a sequence of transliterations and further back-transliterations, a process vulnerable to clerical error.

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