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

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.

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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