Defending Denmark’s borders and its international reputation: Mutually exclusive messages in two languages

Kenn Nakata Steffensen

The Danish government’s recent decision to impose border controls in possible violation of its Schengen Treaty obligations has caused concern among the country’s EU partners, its immediate neighbours Sweden and Germany in particular. The apparent intention to permanently reintroduce border controls (unlike France’s temporary closure earlier this year) has cast the EU’s flagship accomplishment of free mobility into crisis. Both the common currency and free mobility are now under threat, perhaps teaching us that it is Hobbes and Machiavelli rather than Kant we should turn to in order to understand the regional dynamics in Western Europe in the past and present.

The way the policy change was announced in Danish and English further substantiate some points I have previously made about the political use of language and manipulative translation practices in Danish foreign policy and international relations in general. In an article published in 2009, I argued and documented that the Danish state systematically misrepresents the legal and political character of its sovereignty over its North Atlantic territories when projecting its international identity in the English language (Steffensen 2009). The way this takes place is principally by means of translation practices, which resignify Danish legal/political concepts by appropriating a mostly British conceptual vocabulary for strategic purposes. The political objective and effect is to render the colonial nature of the relationship between the metropole and its overseas territories more palatable to international opinion. The efforts are by and large successful, and the Danish state is able to maintain a separation between the “private”, domestic, truth expressed in Danish and an external “public” image as a model liberal internationalist state, and certainly not a significant colonial power.

This is similar to the Japanese dyad of honne本音and tatemae建前. Honne refers to a person’s sincere feelings and tatemae to socially necessary public manifestations. The two can be in conflict, and this does not necessarily pose the same problem in Japanese ethics as in the monotheistic “truth is one, error is many” traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (See Williams 1996; Gray, Doi 1973). One could argue that Denmark’s recent contradictory messages in Danish and English reflect a conflict between domestic honne and international tatemae caused by its giri (social obligations). The related concepts of omote 面 and ura 面 can also be applied to understand the two tongues Denmark seems to be speaking with. There is an international facade and another side that is hidden from view.

What is remarkable about the announcements of the closing of Denmark’s borders is that two different statements were issued in Danish and English. Where the cases I examined in 2009 were examples of tendentious translation from Danish, and where a foreign-language announcement is usually a translation of a native source text, the English press release (http://skat.dk/SKAT.aspx?oId=1947798&vId=0) is a completely different text from the official Danish-language document (http://www.b.dk/sites/default/files/node-files/64/4/4064437-fakta-her-er-aftalen-om-grnsekontrol.pdf). Issuing two statements with very different messages for domestic and international consumption is a step further than manipulatively translating texts and selectively failing to translate others.

The first difference that strikes any reader who knows both Danish and English is the titles. The English text is neutrally entitled “The Danish agreement on customs control.” The much stronger worded Danish title is “Permanent customs control in Denmark (enhanced border control)”. In Danish, the government wishes to signal that the measures are of a permanent nature and that border controls will be strengthened.

According to the Danish text, the main objective of the new border policy is to prevent foreign criminals and irregular economic migrants from getting to Denmark:

 There has in recent years been a marked increase in cross-border crime in Denmark. This is not least the case for crimes of enrichment committed by foreign gangs, the smuggling in and out of drugs, weapons, people and large sums of money as well as avoidance of Danish tax through the use of foreign labour.

 The Government, the Danish People’s Party and Christian Democrats agree that this trend must be curbed and that it must be done through a heavy build-up and permanent and visible controls at the Danish border crossings.

The English text, on the other hand, states that the policyaims first and foremost at enhancing customs control and implies increased controls in relation to the smuggling into Denmark of mainly goods and items.” The Danish text emphasises the need to prevent certain people from entering the country, not “mainly goods and items.” Where the visibility and permanence of the projected border facilities are stressed in Danish, this is played down in English to mean that “construction of proper facilities will help create better conditions for both travellers, road-users and the customs officers.” The new installations are only permanent “in the sense that the new customs control buildings will be permanent and the allocation of new resources will also be of a permanent nature.”

The English document omits the Danish document’s emphasis on stopping “people-smuggling” and “foreign gangs.” It says that:

 

It also is important to bear in mind that the agreement in no way implies that the police will carry out checks on individuals at the Danish border, just as there is no question of introducing passport control in relation to the other Schengen States.

The general tone is also very different. The Danish text presents a picture of necessary defensive measures to protect a vulnerable country from external threats. It uses the military metaphor of an arms build-up (oprustning). Denmark is discursively constructed as being under threat and the rhetoric maximises the threats from outside. The main thrust of the English text is to minimise the threat Denmark’s actions poses to the outside world. There seems to be an implicit recognition that the new measures are perceived as aggressive, so the purpose is to avoid misunderstanding by presenting the policy as moderate and harmless by the frequent use of reassuring words and phrases like “however, this does not mean”, “important to bear in mind”, “in no way implies” etc.:

The agreement also implies a strengthening of policing in order to enable the Danish police to act upon specific requests from customs officers. However, this does not mean that the Danish police will be permanently present at the border.

It is clear that the two press releases present two different and logically incompatible pictures of the reasons behind and the purpose of the policy. The Danish public are told that their government is protecting them from the dangerous “outside”. It is fulfilling its obligation of providing security, law and order, and this means controlling the flow of people and illicit substances/objects across the borders of the realm. It is presented as a defensive measure. There is no reference to EU and international obligations. The world outside Denmark is reassured that the government is not threatening the free mobility of people because the objective is to prevent smuggling. The Danish government says to its domestic constituency that it is defending the realm while trying to defend Denmark’s international reputation in English.

The two press releases can be read here:

The following is my translation of the Danish text. It is unofficial, but judging from what I have seen from Danish ministerial translators in the past, it is almost certainly far more accurate (See Steffensen 2009).

Permanent customs controls in Denmark (enhanced border controls)

There has in recent years been a marked increase in cross-border crime in Denmark. This is not least the case for crimes of enrichment committed by foreign gangs, the smuggling in and out of drugs, weapons, people and large sums of money as well as avoidance of Danish tax through the use of foreign labour.

The Government, the Danish People’s Party and Christian Democrats agree that this trend must be curbed and that it must be done through a heavy build-up and permanent and visible controls at the Danish border crossings.

This is to be ensured by substantial investment in new control facilities, significantly more customs officers, extensive video surveillance of cars that cross the Danish borders, and rapid assistance from police if customs officers discover crime.

The enhanced controls are to take place at all Danish border crossings. This means a permanent presence at the Danish-German land border, the Øresund link, Danish ferry ports and airports as well as the Danish waters, see below.

The Government, the Danish People’s Party and the Christian Democrats agree to allocate a budget of up to 150 million kroner for investment in new, visible, control facilities and new IT equipment etc, as well as a frame of up to 35 million kroner in 2011, rising to up to 119 million kroner in 2015 for more customs officers and an enhanced police deployment etc.

Derived income is also expected from the enhanced deployment.

The Government, the Danish People’s Party and the Christian Democrats will follow up on implementation of the enhanced control efforts, with a particular focus on the progress and impact of each initiative. The enhanced deployment will contribute significantly to exposing and curbing illegal activities at the Danish borders, see box 1 below.

References

Doi, Takeo Omote to ura. Tokyo: Kobundo, 1973

Gray, John Heresies: Against progress and other illusions. London: Granta, 2004

Steffensen, Kenn Nakata “Denmark’s invisible empire: The politics of translating the Danish constitutional order”. in Epstein, Brett J. (ed.) Northern lights: Translation in the Nordic countries. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2009

Williams, David Japan and the enemies of open political science. London: Routledge, 1995

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