From the Editor’s Postbox: The Language Issue – Redux

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From time to time I receive missives from frustrated authors complaining about the linguistic policy of EJIL – we are an English-language journal, though, as seen in my other editorial item on statistics, a majority of our published articles come from non-English-speaking countries. Here is the pertinent sentence from a recent letter:

 It is a shame that the EJIL forces all the authors to write in English – there is indeed in my eyes nothing European in such a stance. That is also the reason why I usually categorically refuse to write for your journal;

Here are some excerpts from my reply to the author:

 Dear Colleague, 

OUP forwarded to me your angry email of December 15th. I am sorry you find our policies so frustrating that you decided to express yourself as you did. 

There is no easy solution to the problem you raise given the linguistic diversity in Europe. EJIL started as an English-French Journal. There were two problems with that solution. First, many colleagues in Germany, Italy, Spain etc. found a one language solution more acceptable than a two language solution – the other language being French. They did not think it any more ‘European’ and just a hangover from a post war political era which exploited a moment of Anglo-French domination. Whether right or wrong, the resentment was quite real. To exacerbate the problem, though we made huge efforts to promote EJIL in France (and Belgium) we had very, very few submissions from French authors, vastly fewer than those coming from German and Italian colleagues, which made it all the more difficult to explain the two language solution of English and French. 

For a while we toyed with the extraordinarily expensive idea of translations. We even tried it for a while. It was a colossal flop – authors were endlessly unhappy with the translations and with the length of time the process took.  Articles appeared in ‘translator’s’ English, which read like official documents of the UN, not the living voice of an author. We also realized that we could not afford the translation services of a quality that would satisfy our readers and authors.

We have always had a majority of non-English speakers on our Board of Editors and at the time we finally decided to settle on English, the Editor in Chief was a French native speaker (Renaud Dehousse, currently a Professor at Science Po.)

We reasoned as follows. As a first language English has no intrinsic merit over any other, not least the other major European Languages such as French, German, Spanish or Italian. As a second language it is vastly more common, by a factor of 1:10 by some estimates, than any other language. In a way, by publishing in English, we are offering our non-native English authors the chance of having their work reach a vast audience which they otherwise might not have had if writing in their own language. EJIL is one of the most successful legal journals of Oxford University Press, if not its most successful. Its list of subscribers, individual and institutional, paper and electronic, stand alone or bundled, is measured in the thousands – far more, as far as I know, than any other international law journal in Europe. There were close to 400,000(!) downloads of its articles last year alone from all over the world. We are unaware of any other international legal journal with anything close to these numbers. 

It thus does not surprise me that consistently we publish in EJIL more articles written by non-English-speaking writers (of which around 70% hail from Europe) than by English-speaking writers. Although, as you note, it is more difficult for them, they understand the resonance that publishing in EJIL gives their work and thus find the trouble worthwhile. I would add that EJIL has emerged as a veritable European voice, and counter-weight (in English) to the American Journal of International Law. Our Editorial policy, style of publication and selection of authors and subjects is very different to AJIL. EJIL also provided the springboard for the establishment of ESIL – the European Society of International Law – another important development in the field.

I was saddened that you ‘categorically’ refuse to publish in EJIL because of our language policy. It is a great loss to a vast number of readers who, unfortunately and scandalously – but such is the world – do not read French. I am an admirer of your work, notably the impressive … and would like to see more of it in EJIL. I hope you might consider reconsidering your categorical decision in the light of the above. It will be our gain. 

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Maya says

April 2, 2012

This post, and the next one on the ratio of submissions / acceptances, is very interesting, and I am grateful to Professor Weiler for adressing what is a difficult topic. Having worked in Brussels, I am well aware of the tensions that linguistic policies can create. Academia is no different, though it should be stressed that the reason English has become the lingua franca of scholarship -- in international law and all other fields -- has little to do with the preferences of scholars. Power politics, and the rise of the US as the global hegemon, is what has precipitated the shift from a bilingual world of diplomacy to what is increasingly a monolingual, English-dominated UN, EU (etc.) system.

EJIL, like most other journals, is simply being pragmatic about its language policy.

That said, it should be stressed that Europeans still have a long way to go in realizing their ideal of linguistic diversity, and Professor Weiler's post also inadvertently embodies a common misperception and flawed understanding of what the EU is in 2012. Personally, I find it absolutely ludicrous that in 2012, in a EU of 27 Member States, when language policy is being discussed, there are but two alternatives: 1. French, and/or 2. German, Spanish or Italian. This was the crux of the debate on the EU patent, and it is indefensible.

I am waiting for the day when Eastern Europe stops apologizing for the fact that it was the (main) victim of World War II and its aftermath, and (re)asserts itself within a unified Europe. If Europeans are truly interested in linguistic diversity, it is time to stop perpetuating the power divide created by World War II and entertaining ridiculous ideas like Italian (?) as an alternative to English. It wouldn't hurt Europeans, especially Western Europeans, if they finally had to get off their high horse and learned a non-Germanic or non-Romance language.

English is not a solution, and it certainly does not level the playing field for Europeans. But before the French, Spanish or Italians, start whining about why their languages are not working languages of the EU, not official EU patent languages, not 'good enough' for academic journals, they need to realize that their languages are no better than Lithuanian, Hungarian or Czech. The colonial era is over, as is the Cold War. Welcome to the 21st century... where being French or (West) German doesn't give you more rights or privileges than being Hungarian or Croat.