Interview with Iñigo Valverde

Iñigo Valverde“We can’t understand the function of translation without terminology. Translation and terminology always go together” – Interview with Iñigo Valverde

November 2012. I had my appointment with Iñigo Valverde on November 15th, 2012, just some weeks before his retirement. After having spent some months in Luxembourg speaking different languages I was surprised to hear someone speaking perfect Spanish, full of correct words but without sounding pedantic. That is what he showed me during the hour I was speaking with him, a precise knowledge of the language, going into the concept, and at the same time staying natural. He is Spanish but there is Norwegian blood running through his veins.

Iñigo Valverde was Head of the Spanish Translation Unit of the Directorate-General for Translation of the European Parliament for 5 years. Trained as a lawyer, and as a certified translator for English, French, Portuguese and Italian, he started working in an import-export company where he gained knowledge in maritime law. He also worked for a couple of maritime law firms. However, the “adventure of languages” brought him to Luxembourg in 1986, where he worked for the Court of Justice for almost three and a half years. Later on he decided to move to the European Parliament, where he stayed for 23 years till his retirement. Passionate about the French sci-fi author Jules Verne, he translated ‘Miguel Strogoff’ into Spanish, although he would like have translated ‘The Mysterious Island’. The Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament talked to him about multilingualism, translation and terminology.

1. Yuki Akaike Garrido: How far do you think your multicultural origin, combining Northern and Southern Europe, has been a positive factor for your career at the European Parliament? Has it had a big influence on you?

Iñigo Valverde:

Probably yes. Well, my mother’s father was Norwegian, my grandmother was a Basque from San Sebastian who learned Norwegian; she learned it quite well, which is admirable for a woman living at the beginning of the 20th century. What happened was that my mother did not speak Norwegian very often with her father but, of course, she spoke Spanish with the rest of the family. My grandmother had a very strong spirit so my mother’s mother tongue was Spanish, her father tongue was Norwegian, but it was the mother tongue the one which stayed.

Also my father spoke Romance languages such as French, Italian and Portuguese. My mother spoke English and German very well, and for that reason my brothers, sisters and me lived in this kind of multiculturalism. We all went to the French school. I have spoken French since I was a child, I learned English relatively easily, and Italian and Portuguese even more easily. I tried German but I’m not very fluent in that language. Neither do I speak Greek. But yes, my family’s origin, which is a little bit foreign, has influenced me. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Norwegian or Danish, even though I’ve studied them.

2. Yuki Akaike Garrido: What about Luxembourgish?

Iñigo Valverde:

I understand it a little bit as I understand a little bit of German, but I do not speak it. As I work in the Spanish Unit, we are dumped into the Spanish language. We must pay special attention to Spanish and the Spanish which is spoken in Spain. It is essential for our work. Some of the oldest members of this Unit have not engaged in learning more languages ​​but in improving methods of translation into our own language. So, I do not speak Luxembourgish. But there are several colleagues who are fluent in Luxembourgish. It’s hard, but if you speak German, it is easier to learn.

3. Yuki Akaike Garrido: Is Luxembourgish a kind of a mixture between French and German?

Iñigo Valverde:

Luxembourgish is a High German dialect with a French influence. Luxembourg was dominated by France for a long time during the pre-Revolution and post-Revolution period. That is why Luxembourg has a French influence. You can see it in the Luxembourgish laws which come from Napoleonic and French texts. The administrative work has been carried out in French for a long time.

Normally, children speak Luxembourgish at home. When they go to school the first language they learn is German and when they have a certain maturity, they start learning French. Higher education is provided in German and French. Many of them go to France to study French. We have to remember that until ten years ago we did not have University education here. Students could not study at a university, so they had to go abroad. Many people went to Belgium, Germany, or France.

As a result the majority of the educated population of Luxembourg speak French very well despite their Luxembourgish accent. Another part of the population speaks both French and German and the less educated people speak bad French and good German. So, most of the well-educated people from Luxembourg speak French, German, Luxembourgish and English. Once you know three languages it is much easier to learn others. That is the reason why many people from Luxembourg or Germany speak Spanish.

4. Yuki Akaike Garrido: Is the Spanish Community at the European Parliament in Luxembourg very big?

Iñigo Valverde:

Here, in the Spanish Unit, there are around 50 Spaniards. About Luxembourg city, if you take into account the Spaniards who work in the banks, and the other Spanish civil servants from the EU, you could easily reach a number between 1,500 and 2,000 Spaniards living in Luxembourg.

5. Yuki Akaike Garrido: I heard that you like Jules Verne’s ‘The Mysterious Island’; you have also translated Jules Verne’s ‘Miguel Strogoff’. Do you consider yourself an adventurer? Is that why you decided to leave the profession of a lawyer and take the adventure of translation?

Iñigo Valverde:

A friend of mine offered me to translate a Jules Verne’s novel in 1987. I wanted to translate ‘The Mysterious Island’, a beautiful novel, a wonderful novel. But I could not, so in the end I translated ‘Miguel Strogoff. ‘I accepted the offer, spent five months working on it and I really liked it. It was the first time I had translated fiction. I had done a lot of technical translation before. I had predominantly had translated legal texts.

I studied law; I am a lawyer. First I worked in an import-export company where I had contact with the maritime world and then I became interested in the maritime law. I worked for a couple of maritime law firms. Then I gradually started withdrawing for it (I was not very good at translating bills), and I moved into languages. It was a coincidence that Spain joined the European Community at the same time and this fact opened up a lot of possibilities for people to work with languages. I was not a professional translator. Translation was a complementary activity to my work as a lawyer. Maritime law has a lot of international documents. I was bound to read specialized documents in English. We were handling a lot of documentation in English and that documentation had to be translated, edited and understood. At that moment all these papers had to be officially translated into Spanish. Some fellows said, “Well, here we are paying a fortune for certified translations. We should become translators.” And indeed, in two official competitions, we all became certified translators. I am a certified translator for English, French, Portuguese and Italian.

And when I came here [to Luxembourg] in 1986 I came with my experience of five years as a legal translator. Firstly I worked at the Court of Justice, where I spent about three years and a few months, and then I came to the Parliament. I had passed the competition for the Court of Justice and for the Commission, and had signed up for the competition for the European Parliament. I also had submitted my candidature for a competition as an administrator and another one for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I had been studying for five competitions for two months. I was exhausted! So I felt asleep on the day of the European Parliament competition. I said to me, “Well, it is fine. I won’t go. I suppose I will pass one of the other four competitions.” I passed three of them, so I was put on three reserve lists. The Court of Justice and the Commission offered me a post. I came to Luxembourg to do the medical check. In fact, the Commission GP told me I could not work there because of my vision problems. But I was informed that I could send an expert’s report from a Spanish GP, so that a panel of doctors could take a decision. I was not too worried because I worked already in the Court of Justice. Afterwards I saw that there were new vacancies in the European Parliament and I decided to go for it. Finally, the only post I couldn’t apply for because I had overslept on the day of the competition was the post I accepted and the one I have had for 23 years. It was possible to be promoted by taking into account seniority and good work. So, while the youngest had to pass an exam I was promoted without passing any tests. I did not like that because I wanted to prove myself. But I think I’ve proved my abilities throughout all these years.

6. Yuki Akaike Garrido: Could you please explain how you dealt with terminology in the Spanish Unit in the last period, when the Parliament acquired increased legislative power.

Iñigo Valverde:

All of us are translators and terminologists here. We think that translation and terminology go together. Usually, when a translator has a problem and he/she knows that the problem will come back, they create a file. We all have files.

7. Yuki Akaike Garrido: The Spanish Unit of the European Parliament has always shown a special interest in terminology, as we can see in your previous “bulletins” and “terminology flashes”, a best practice for the entire Parliament.

Iñigo Valverde:

Yes, it is true. What we did was to put together all our experience, so that when we had a terminology problem, we usually looked for the term in English because they normally are on the top, and then we started doing research. We had a group of terminologists who worked almost permanently in the Spanish Unit. But we decided to do it only when there was something to discuss. And that is what we did. We used to meet in an informal and spontaneous way every time there was something to discuss. There was no one to coordinate more often than others. The permanent members were: Teresa Ruiz, Amadeus Solar, Jesús Iglesias, Manuel Pedraza… but all the others were involved more or less. We used to do our own research at first, and then we used to go to the library, make calls etc… All those things that you used to do when there was not internet. But later on, about 10 or 15 years ago, we realized that there were web search engines and we started use them immediately. We used to get all the information from these engines, analyse and filter, discard what was not useful and have an internal debate. This process was very fast.

8. Yuki Akaike Garrido: In a world where languages evolve so fast and neologisms spring up (social media, IT, ecology, technology…) terminology plays a significant role. How do you deal with the increasing volume of new words coming into the language?

Iñigo Valverde:

I don’t think it is a problem. For us it is our job. We see it as something natural. If it rains lots of new words, we take our “terminology umbrella”. It is very interesting to have terminology debates. Well, we have to say that most of the texts which come to the Parliament from the Commission are well prepared. The Commission carries out their own terminology research. Sometimes we have to find out the solution to a terminology problem.

9. Yuki Akaike Garrido: IATE is a unique, important and interactive database, but don’t you think that the evolution of international and interinstitutional cooperation and communication would also need a dynamic platform for information sharing and cooperation among the Institutions?

Iñigo Valverde:

I do think that IATE is very useful. It is very well conceived. It has inserted a big part of the terms coming from our bulletins thanks to our colleagues at the Commission. The only problem of IATE is that it imported a lot of information from the old application Eurodicautom. Much of the information in Eurodicautom had not been checked. There was a parameter of reliability, but during the import of all this information, this classification was lost. So, there is still a lot of work to do. We participate in this and consider this collaboration necessary. But I can’t think about other innovations. Maybe it would be nice to modernise it. I also think it is great that IATE is public.

10. Yuki Akaike Garrido: Could you please give your opinion about the contemporary approach of the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament?

Iñigo Valverde:

Translators are specialists in language. However, a specialist in a subject doesn’t need to be a specialist in languages. Translators do not need to know everything. They have to meet the correct person, the expert in their own language, in the Commission, in order to understand the documents. Terminologists work together with translators. What I mean is that a translator is a terminologist and a terminologist is a translator. We work on terminology. We give our work to the Terminology Coordination Unit in order to store it and distribute it. On the other hand, the translator-terminologist has to be the link between the specialized knowledge and the experts in several subjects and languages. They translate an idea from the specialized language into the public language.

11. Yuki Akaike Garrido: Which countries do you think have longer traditions and are more active in terminology? And what is the place of Spain in this science?

Iñigo Valverde:

Spain should be a country with a long tradition in interlinguistic terminology, but it isn’t. Spain has Catalan, Basque and Galician (although the last one has a few differences with Castilian). We should have an institution. I remember that the National Research Council (CSIC) had a department which worked with a terminology scientist and a technical in English and in Spanish. That was in 1985 when they already had quite advanced databases. But all this is not well known to the public.

Canada has a good tradition in terminology. They are perfectly bilingual. They have a long-standing university tradition of bilingualism and you can see this especially in weather terminology. There is where automatic translation started. After that SYSTRAN was developed. Canada is a pioneer in this. They had the need and they had the means.

We believe that IATE is an excellent instrument. We should continue develop it and to keep it public. The European Community must promote terminology, above all, among the regular users, not among the specialized ones because these translators are usually researchers so they know how to manage. A translator is a terminologist. I consider this is art, not just a technique.


Interviewer Yuki Akaike Garridoyuki

Half-Japanese, half-Spanish. Studied Journalism at the University Complutense of Madrid. Lived and worked as a journalist in London for almost two years as a participant of the European Leonardo da Vinci programme and as a freelance. Edited travel books and published articles about culture and social issues. Postgraduate in gender studies and interested in environmental topics.

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