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Language fact: Maltese

Language fact: MalteseWhen Malta joined the European Union in 2004, many medical translation providers asked “What is Maltese?”.

The huge increase in demand for professional Maltese translations (think centralized procedure, product labeling, not to speak of official EU business) has resulted in a chronic shortage of Maltese translators. As recently as 2009, the EU Commission singled out Maltese translators as "particularly difficult" to recruit.

With that in mind, let's take a look at Maltese:

First, a bit of history
Maltese is the national language of Malta, an island in the Mediterranean just south of Sicily. The Maltese archipelago is comprised of Malta, Gozo, Comino, and two uninhabited islands, Cominotto (Kemmunet) and Filfla. While Maltese is the eponymous language of Malta, both Maltese and English are considered official languages throughout these islands.

For almost 900 years, the island of Malta fell victim to numerous invasions and occupations. Its location in the center of the Mediterranean made it a strategic naval hub; those who occupied Malta could monitor the Mediterranean corridor and have a safe haven for their ships. This violent and tumultuous history is what formed the Maltese language as we know it today.

  • 700 BC: The Ancient Greeks settle on Malta.
  • 200 BC: During the First Punic War, the Maltese rebel against Carthage and turn control over to the Roman Republic.
  • 395 AD: The Roman Empire splits, and Malta falls to the Greek speaking Byzantine Empire.
  • 909: Malta is invaded by Arabs as part of the Byzantine-Arab Wars.
  • 1091: The Maltese Islands are invaded by French speaking Normans.
  • 1194: Control is passed to the House of Hohenstaufen and Malta becomes part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.
  • 1275: Malta is taken over by the Aragonese and falls under Spanish reign.
  • 16th to 18th centuries: Malta is occupied by Italian, French, and Latin speakers. Napoleon conquers the islands in 1798.
  • 1814: Malta becomes a British colony.
  • 1934: Maltese and English replace Italian as the official languages of Malta.
  • 1964: Malta gains independence from the United Kingdom.
  • 2004: Malta joins the European Union.
Modern Maltese is a direct result of these centuries of occupation as each new invader brought their distinctive language(s) with them. It truly is a one of a kind idiom – mixing Semitic, Germanic, and Romance languages to form an entirely unique linguistic entity.

The Maltese language
Maltese is a modern Semitic language, and Maltese is closely related to the Western Arabic dialects. While it maintains a strong Arabic base, many of the words and pronunciations have been influenced by Italian, Sicilian, French, and English. It is estimated that the origin of Maltese is 40% Semitic, 40% Romance, and 20% English.

Maltese was not recognized as an official standardized language until the early 20th century. While many examples of written Maltese existed prior to the 20th century (the earliest known Maltese literary text comes from the 15th century), they varied greatly and no explicit grammatical or orthographical rules had previously been enforced.

The eventual standardization of the language was primarily due to an effort by the country's scholars, known as the Academy of the Maltese Language (Akkademja tal-Malti), to create a unified and codified Maltese language. They accomplished this by transcribing the vernacular into a comprehensive written form.

The first edition of this book, the Knowledge on Writing in Maltese (Tagħrif fuq il-Kitba Maltija), was published in 1924. The rules were further elaborated on in subsequent books published in 1984, 1992, and 1996.

Today, the language is regulated by the National Council for the Maltese Language (KNM), however the rules established in the Tagħrif fuq il-Kitba Maltija are still considered valid and official. In fact, Maltese is currently the only Semitic language to be recognized as an official language by the European Union.

Maltese is also the only Semitic language to use the Latin alphabet. Even the oldest Maltese documents were written using Roman characters. The modern Maltese orthography was developed in 1924 in the Tagħrif fuq il-Kitba Maltija. The alphabet consists of 30 characters including 6 "special" characters unique to Maltese:
  • Ċ
  • Ġ
  • Ħ
  • IE
  • Ż
While Maltese grammar is fundamentally based on Siculo-Arabic, all of the loan words follow the noun pluralization rules of the Romance or English words they are derived from.

Today it is estimated that 100% of the population of Malta speaks the Maltese language, while 88% speak English, 66% speak Italian, and 17% speak French. This makes Malta one of the most multi-lingual countries in the European Union. This is hardly surprising given the nation's diverse and unpredictable history.

How to treat this "rare" language?
It is obvious that Maltese is an entirely unique language and it should be treated as such. All translation projects with Maltese as a target language should be carried out by native speakers.

While this is paramount when it comes to marketing and/or more culturally focused texts, this can also be very difficult, as the EU experience mentioned at the top of this article highlights. With roughly 400,000 native speakers, there can only be so many professional translators.

Drug and device companies are well advised to carefully screen the Maltese capabilities of their translation partners. Particularly under programs like the centralised procedure, companies call ill-afford a delay due to resource bottlenecks.

How do you do that? Ask for references, conduct test translations, and don't put all of your eggs in one basket!

ForeignExchange translates medical device and pharmaceutical materials into Maltese - as well as dozens of other languages. Ask us for a detailed proposal on your next translation project.

1 Comment:

  1. Cath said...
    A very gripping article!
    Interestingly, if you search for the ISO code of Maltese (MT), you find it on numerous Web sites, including http://publications.europa.eu/code/fr/fr-5000500.htm, the EU's one of course, and the French one : http://universite.online.fr/supports/pdf/xhtml_langues.pdf.
    But, you cannot find it on the Caen University's one, which while being a school renowned for the high degree of the linguistic studies and specializations it offers, particularly concerning the EU languages, does not even mention Maltese in the ISO code list displayed on its site: http://www.unicaen.fr/typo_langues/consultation_langue.php.
    (Incidentally, please note that the Medical site of the Caen University is one of the best French-speaking ones, mainly for the Pharmaco-Chemistry and Molecular Modelling, Clinical Research, Bio-Engineering, etc. domains).
    Back to the Maltese ISO code: surprisingly, SYSTRAN's site is in complete ignorance of it.
    About ISO codes, did you know that France, besides "FR", has another code? Yes, it has "FX". No, here, it doesn't mean Federal Express,or fracture, or special effect, not even science-fiction, but simply Metropolitan France ;-)
    Don't ask me why, nor who was the first one to have such a brilliant and creative idea, I am unable to answer.

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