Dancing in the Rain for over 55 years


Maha El-Metwally talks to Richard Littlewood of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Domestic Office about a translation and interpreting service which has weathered calm and storm.

Richard Littlewood is the head of the translation and interpreting service for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Domestic Office (FCDO), heading up a team of 10 who work alongside freelancers to provide translation and interpreting services to the FCDO, other UK government departments and other public agencies and organisations. I recently attended a talk he gave on the history of his unit, and he generously agreed to share his speaking notes with me. So I am pleased in turn to share with you the story of translation and interpreting at the then Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

This is the story of two institutions – one a trading bloc of nations born in the wake of the Second World War and the other a small team of linguists put together in haste to help prepare the UK for an epoch-changing moment in its history. It's also about how, for more than 40 years, the fate of one was tied to that of the other, before the two were abruptly parted; and about how, despite everything, the smaller institution survived the break-up only to find a purpose and vision of its own.

To start at the beginning, the UK first applied to join the European Economic Community (the Common Market) in 1961. That application was vetoed by the French government in 1963. A further application was vetoed, again by the French, in 1967. It was not until 1969 that the UK got the green light to proceed with accession negotiations, which began in 1970.

The UK government suddenly realised the need for input from professional linguists, and the FCO seemed the natural home for them. However, while the then Board of Trade had had a team of translators since the late 19th century, and some other Whitehall linguistic services were set up very early in the 20th, the FCO had historically managed translation work on an ad hoc basis by recourse to desk officers – or, for more formal purposes, lawyers and legal advisers – with the relevant language skills. This arrangement was rightly considered inadequate to the task that now presented itself. 

Cue the creation of the Special Translation Section, headed by an international lawyer/diplomat by the name of Alexander Elkin and half a dozen freelance translators engaged on fixed- term contracts on the basis of recommendation and word of mouth. This group of disparate individuals was charged with the not insignificant task of translating into English the founding treaties of the European Communities, including the Treaty of Rome, and the 'acquis communautaire', the body of key pieces of Community legislation that would need to exist in English prior to the UK's accession.

Members of the Special Translation Section, together with representatives from the European Commission's Translation Directorate and from the Irish Government, made up what was known as the Authentic English Texts Committee (AET). Consulting with subject experts across Whitehall and collaborating through regular visits to Brussels with counterparts at the European Commission (where specific points of translation were discussed and resolved at monthly AET meetings) the section managed in the course of just two years to complete a project which must at first have seemed unachievable. When the English-language versions of the treaties and of the key items of Community legislation were published in London on 13 January 1972, the publication consisted of 42 volumes comprising 9,000 pages. All of this they had done with clunky electric typewriters (no laptops and PCs then); with a library of hard-copy dictionaries, encyclopedias and other reference books (no internet); and a team of messengers running within and between government departments (no email either).

These unsung heroes did not just translate a large volume of material in a relatively short space of time – they also had to create a largely new language. Much of the English of their translations had not existed before. The language and legal architecture of the founding treaties and early Community legislation was rooted in French and French law. It was taken straight from the Napoleonic Code. The English translations had to be meaningful to an English reader even though they were conveying concepts which, at that time, were completely alien to any English reader, any UK lawyer and any UK civil servant.

Following the UK's accession on 1 January 1973, it was decided that the Special Translation Section should become permanent, and its staff should be FCO employees. For the next 26 years, Translation Branch (as it was now called) supported the FCO in pursuing its international policy objectives. In particular, it assisted the UK in the negotiation of three key milestones in the history of the European project: the Single European Act, the Maastricht Treaty and the Treaty of Amsterdam.

In 1999, the non-policy departments in the FCO were merged to become a single support organisation known as FCO Services (FCOS). Translation Branch, which had by now taken on responsibility for providing interpretation too, joined FCOS and became known as the Translation and Interpreting (T&I) service. This proved to be much more of a watershed for the T&I team than anyone had anticipated. 

The different services making up FCOS all had to charge for their work. And although the FCO could not procure most of the other services from anywhere else, many people in the FCO opted to commission T&I from elsewhere – or from people within its own ranks with some language skills. Over the years that followed, commissions from FCO drained away. As a result, and as part of the 'commercialisation' strategy being implemented across FCOS, the T&I service was compelled to seek new revenue sources. The European Union (EU) proved to be a good source. The service successfully tendered for several EU contracts to the point where, in 2016, the lion's share of its translation income came directly from the EU or from UK government departments working with the EU. 

Then, on 23 June 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union. Almost immediately, commissions from UK government departments working with the EU fell away. And a massive question mark hovered over the continued validity of the EU contracts which the T&I service already held with EU institutions, as well as its eligibility to tender for new EU contracts – as a supplier which would soon no longer be based in an EU member state.

In 2017, FCOS decided that, in light not least of the loss of revenue following the leave vote and the unlikelihood of generating equivalent from other sources, the T&I service was no longer financially viable. As a result, the FCO chose not to take up the option of reabsorbing the T&I team into its own organisation, and the decision was taken to close the service and make its staff redundant. To rub salt into the wound, the T&I service was asked to check a number of non-English language versions of the draft EU Withdrawal Agreement. The service had thus come full circle: it was supporting the UK's withdrawal from the EU just as it had supported its accession.

Luckily, the service's customers voted with their keyboards and protested at the prospect of an FCO without its own in-house T&I service, not least just as the UK was about to leave the EU. In fact there were three main areas where the assistance of the T&I service was much needed.

First: third-country agreement replication. The UK had embarked on a process of replicating the EU's many association agreements with third countries, so that clones of such agreements would exist bilaterally between the UK and such countries. The T&I service was tasked with bringing the foreign-language versions of these new agreements into line with their amended English counterparts.

Second: political events. The UK's withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Russian invasion of Ukraine are just two of the political events that have brought into sharp focus the value of internal linguistic expertise and capacity. The T&I service has been able to support teams in different FCDO departments in delivering the UK's response to developments like these.

Third: a general change of perception. The realisation that the UK would be leaving behind the extensive linguistic resources previously available to it in Brussels and Luxembourg, and the imperative to pursue trade and other negotiations with partners across the world, have brought about a change in the way the FCDO and other UK government departments view T&I requirements and how to source them.

In its rediscovered role, the T&I service has translated large volumes of material into Arabic – much of it urgent, and some of it outside office hours – for the FCDO's media team and its Middle East and North Africa department. It also translated all the preparatory documentation for the UK-hosted COP26 in Glasgow. Additionally, it has translated material in connection with the Afghan relocation and resettlement schemes (into Dari and Pashto), and communications in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine (into Ukrainian and Russian). The 2021 Integrated Review has been translated into the UN languages, Welsh and more. The services has also provided, among other things, interpreting for the visits of the Ukrainian President to the UK.

There is a saying (originally from writer Vivien Greene) which has become popular: 'Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass, it's about learning to dance in the rain.' The T&I service has learned to dance in the rain as a result of the storms whipped up by business drain, Brexit ramifications, service closure and so on. And, in negotiating those storms, the service has, like the proverbial prodigal child, returned from ventures afar and come home to re-engage with its original purpose and assist the organisation that created it over 50 years ago in confronting the challenges of the present and the future.