With 20 Official Languages, Is EU Lost in Translation?

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However, the resulting translation workload has meant problems for both the EC and individual member states. For instance, Estonia's government this month reported major difficulties in ratifying some European legislation because of poor translation of EU laws.

The EC also admits to difficulties in finding sufficient numbers of qualified translators in languages such as Maltese, which is spoken by only about 370,000 people.

Richard Rowe, spokesperson for the EC's Directorate-General for Translation, says the legal requirement that all EU legislation is simultaneously published in all official languages has been suspended until enough Maltese-speaking translators can be trained.

"Apart from the problem of the lack of qualified candidates for some languages, we are under budgetary constraints, which means we cannot recruit all the translators we need in an ideal world until 2006," Rowe added.

Yet the spokesman said the EC is taking measures to speed up and simplify its written translation work, which last year amounted to more than 1.5 million pages.

"One simplification measure the commission has already adopted is to impose a reduction in the length of texts sent to us for translation," he noted. Now these texts should not exceed 15 pages in length.

Computer Translations

Most EC translators also have access to a powerful computer application called Translator's Workbench, which stores all previous work.

"The translator faced with a new assignment feeds it into the system and gets back a text in which the memory suggests translations of phrases, sentences, or even whole paragraphs [that] have been translated in the past," Rowe said. "We always recycle previous work wherever possible."

He adds that internal EC work is conducted largely in just three languages—English, French, and German—for reasons of efficiency and economy. In the longer term, such an approach may be the way forward throughout the EU, according to Giles Chichester, a British MEP.

"In practice, the institutions are trying to move towards one dominant language, with one or two other working languages," he said. "Let nature take its course."

Unofficially English is the language of choice within the EU It is now used for drafting around 60 percent of all paperwork. English is also widely spoken as a second language in Europe, especially in Scandinavian and Eastern European countries. In Malta, the vast majority of residents understand English.

Officially, however, an EU dominated by English would be unacceptable politically. The French are particularly sensitive to its increased use, while multilingualism is considered a vital cornerstone of the European Parliament.

"Members are elected and represent the public because of their political stances, not their language skills," said Rowe, the EC translation-services spokesman. "So in the interests of democracy and transparency, the service provided to them has to be much more multilingual."

In fact, the amount of translation and interpretation work could multiply further if various political groups get their way. Catalan is spoken by some seven million Europeans, mostly in Spain. Yet it doesn't have official status within the EU Similarly, the Irish and Welsh are lobbying for official recognition of their native Celtic tongues.

For the European Union to work as one, "Eurobabble" may be the price it has to pay.

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