Conversing in a foreign language

Lost in translation

Lecture halls aren’t the only place where internationals are taking over. They can also be found in faculty councils, and even in the University Council. This can be pretty tricky, because how can they remain accessible to all members of the academic community when they don’t all speak the same language?
By Thereza Langeler / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Stephen Milder, assistant professor at European languages and cultures, doesn’t speak Dutch. But he does understand enough to be on the personnel faction and the art faculty council. When he wants to contribute during a meeting, however, he does so in English, only to receive his answer in Dutch.

‘I can understand that a Dutch universities would have its meetings in Dutch’, Milder says. ‘But it does make them difficult to follow for me. Especially when there aren’t any documents present.’

Art isn’t the only faculty that is struggling with deciding which language to speak during meeting, a UK survey among faculty councils shows. The law, behavioural and social sciences (BSS) and medical faculties all have their meetings in Dutch, while not all council members speak the language.


‘It can be quite challenging to actively participate in discussions when everyone else is speaking Dutch’, Nathalie Weissenberger with student faction TBR at the law faculty says. She is quite happy with the solution the department came up with: real-time translation using Google Docs.

Not everyone knows how to properly express themselves in English

‘Someone translates what’s being said into English, and Nathalie can read it immediately’, council chair Michiel Duchateau explains. ‘It does take a little time, which is why we’ll give Nathalie the chance to respond to things a little later, or to come back to certain topics. I’ll occasionally ask if she’s still doing okay and if she is still following everything.’

The Google Docs translation technique is used elsewhere as well, during University Council meetings. BSS is also going to start using it. ‘Our faction has been international since this year’, Elkan Akyurek of the BSS council says. ‘They’re not very good at Dutch, which took some getting used to.’

So how do they make sure that everyone can join in? ‘It’s not like people aren’t willing, but not everyone knows how to properly express themselves in English’, says Akyurek. This means the main language at BSS will remain Dutch. In October, the faculty board suggested that Dutch staff could update their international colleagues, but in December vice dean Greetje van der Werf announced that they would employ a translator as well.

Exemplary role

Other faculties have switched to English. The Faculty of Science and Engineering (FSE), for example, or Economy and Business (FEB). ‘There are several internationals on the board, but even if there weren’t, the working language shouldn’t stop people from getting a seat’, council chair Robbert Maseland explains. ‘The meetings are public, and all international people should be able to understand them. And I personally think the faculty council has an exemplary role in this.’

But not everyone feels that the participation councils should all be in English. Not even law student Weissenberger: ‘I think it’s unrealistic and impractical to ask every single board or council member to only speak English.’

Duchateau says: ‘We can’t guarantee everyone being able to discuss at their full strength in something other than their mother tongue.’ Akyurek agrees. ‘It would deteriorate the language.’


Some faculties don’t use a single language, but a mix born of pragmatism. The Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies (TRS) uses such a mix. Meetings with only the faculty council, which aren’t recorded, take place in English. Meetings with the faculty board, which the secretary has to be able to understand and record, are generally in Dutch. ‘Whenever someone doesn’t understand something, we can always explain in English’, says council member Charissa Caron.

A single word in a policy document can make quite a difference

And let’s not forget the paperwork: memos, notes, plans, numbers, and other pieces the council members are expected to have opinions on, and about which they have to make important decisions. Moreover, these documents are all public. The main language during council meetings doesn’t always determine the language of their documentation.

Spatial sciences holds its meetings in Dutch, because there are no internationals on the council. Council documents and notes, however, are in English. ‘Everyone should be able to understand what is being discussed during our meetings’, says chair Gerd Weitkamp.

Dropped out

FEB also composes all its documents in English. The majority of faculties, including the arts and law faculties, use both English and Dutch. But FSE, where English is the main spoken language, actually composes all its documents in Dutch. This is for legal reasons, council chair Mark van de Marel explains. ‘A single word in a policy document can make quite a difference, and it’s difficult for people who aren’t native speakers.’ FSE does translate its council documents into English.

If it’s up to arts council vice chair Julian Bushof, his faculty will switch to this system as soon as possible. At his own faction, Letteren Vooruit, several potential members actually dropped out because of the language barrier. ‘The internationals in the personnel faction also have trouble understanding all the documents.’

However, translating all the documents costs money, as it would have to be done by the RUG’s Language Centre. But the council members all agree that it’s high time that the arts faculty starts coughing up the money for that. ‘After all, it has great added value’, says Bushof. ‘The ball is in the board’s court.’


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