With 20 Official Languages, Is EU Lost in Translation?

James Owen in London
for National Geographic News
February 22, 2005

The European Union has been operating in 20 official languages since ten new member states joined the legislative body last year. With annual translation costs set to rise to 1.3 billion dollars (U.S.), some people question whether EU institutions are becoming overburdened by multilingualism.

Brussels, Belgium, the European Union's headquarters city, is fast getting a reputation as the new Babel. Parliamentary sessions are conducted 20 languages simultaneously. With further countries soon to join the EU, some analysts fear the effectiveness of its institutions could be getting lost in translation.

Czech, Estonian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Slovak, and Slovene are the most recent tongues to become official EU languages. With the countries of Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania also on the EU membership waiting list, the body is due to accommodate several more languages by 2010.

Even before expansion in 2004, the EU ran the world's largest translation operation—twice as big as that of the United Nations, which has six official languages.

EU institutions currently require around 2,000 written-text translators. They also need 80 interpreters per language per day, half of which operate at the European Parliament. The total annual cost of EU multilingualism will soon rise from 875 million dollars U.S. (670 million euros) to 1.3 billion dollars U.S. (1 billion euros), according to the European Commission, the union's executive body.

The European Parliament requires some 60 interpreters to help elected politicians from the 25 member states understand each other. These interpreters work in soundproofed booths, translating the words of European members of Parliament (MEPs). Even so, unfamiliar words or phrases can leave interpreters lost for words, says Struan Stevenson, a British MEP.

Referring to a debate last month, Stevenson said, "The system ground to a sudden halt when a British MEP described the EU Constitution as 'gobbledygook.' Apparently there is no such word in Polish and some of the other East European languages. The interpreters were flummoxed—and that's another word they'd find hard to tackle."

Comic misunderstandings can arise that become part of Brussels lore. For instance, during an agricultural working group session, "frozen semen" was translated into French as "frozen seamen."

Another MEP recalls how the expression "out of sight, out of mind" became "invisible lunatic" after a computer-aided translation.

Fundamental Right

On a more serious note, Stevenson said, "Because it is deemed a fundamental right to be able to communicate with your electors in [your] own tongue, the parliament now has to work in 20 different languages. This exercise currently consumes tens of thousands of tons of paper a year, as every word spoken has to be typed up and filed in mountainous archives."

The European Commission (EC), the legislative body of the European Union, says it's essential that legislation is published in the official languages of all member states, because EU citizens can't be expected to comply with laws they don't understand.

Continued on Next Page >>


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