Language and Society

Towards a Better Understanding – The Interpreting and Translation Services of the EU

© colourbox© colourboxWhat started out four decades ago with only four languages has long since given way to a veritable Babylonian confusion of tongues. Since the sixth enlargement in 2007 the European Union now has a population of half a billion people in 27 countries that have 23 different official languages and use three different alphabets, not to mention all the various national, regional and local dialects. Making sure people understand each other amidst this linguistic chaos is indeed a challenging task.

It was most definitely not pure coincidence that the first resolution passed by the forerunner of the European Union, the “European Coal and Steel Community” (ECSC) back in 1958 regulated which languages were to used among its seven founder members. Back then the four languages – German, French, Italian and Dutch – limited the number of possible language combinations to a dozen. A somewhat manageable number compared to the 506 combinations resulting from the 23 official languages used today. The end is still not in sight, either. A good half dozen more EU entry candidates are waiting in the wings. At the same time Basque, Catalonian, Galician and Corsican linguistic minorities are demanding they be granted the same status as Gaelic – a language that has been recognised as an official language of the EU. Quite rightly so, too, if you consider that only one in every hundred people in Ireland and Scotland is capable of speaking the vernacular of the Britannic Celts.

A Babylonian confusion of tongues

© colourboxThe multilingualism prevailing in the European Union has long since taken on the proportions of a Babylonian confusion of tongues and it has always been a bone of contention – not to mention a subject that has triggered some of the weirdest proposals. Especially when such sensitive areas like law are being dealt with, critics warn about all the possible misunderstandings, contradictions and misinterpretations that can crop up in the translation process. This is why Latin was once toyed with as a neutral European lingua franca in order to avoid such shortcomings.

In official terms however this multilingualism is very much in line with the EU’s motto of “United in Diversity” and is not only an expression of the ethnic and cultural tolerance inherent within the European unification project, but also of such principles as democracy, equality and transparency. Making a virtue out of necessity, the EU prides itself in the fact that every representative of the people has the right to listen to, read and write his or her own mother tongue.

Both a blessing and a curse

One man’s curse is another man’s blessing. The main people benefiting from these communication difficulties within the EU “family” are all the professionals who work in the field of overcoming these language barriers. Every day an average of more than 2,500 interpreters and translators are in action in the EU’s institutions, organs and agencies.

The largest service of its kind in the world is the Directorate General for Interpretation of the European Commission. Every year the service ensures trouble-free communication at about 11,000 meetings and is furthermore in charge of organising numerous conferences and large-scale events. At these events, depending on how many and which languages are required, oral translation can take the form of consecutive interpreting in two languages, for which only one person is necessary, or symmetrical simultaneous interpreting, for which at least 69 interpreters are necessary due to the three-way set-up of the teams. The Council of the European Union, the Committee of The Regions, the European Economic and Social Committee, as well as the European Investment Bank also avail themselves of the services of the Directorate General for Interpretation.

More and more exotic

© colourboxIn addition the Commission operates a Directorate General for Translation that translates legislative provisions and strategic papers that are of particular public import into all the official languages. All the other documents, including correspondence between authorities and individual citizens of the EU, are as a rule limited to being translated into the particular language of the country in question. By way of contrast internal documents are drawn up categorically in the three working languages of the EU: English, French and German.

The European Parliament also has a Directorate General for Interpretation and Conferences at its disposal. At the moment it employs 430 interpreters who enjoy civil-servant status and, if necessary, it can draw on another 2,500 external free-lancers as back-up. The EU’s plenary sessions pose the greatest challenge for them. As the venue for these sessions alternates between Strasbourg and Brussels, the parliament is regularly accompanied by an entourage of up to 1,000 interpreters. The original plan was to have only native speakers translating the spoken word into their respective mother tongues. This however turned out to be more and more difficult - not least because of the growing number of exotic languages; the Finno-Ugric Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian or Arabic-related Maltese to name but a few. This is the reason why they very often resort to the system of using English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Polish as “relais” languages.

A gargantuan effort

In the meantime this method has also become common practice at DG TRAD – the translation service of the European Parliament. There are about 700 translators earning their daily bread there, striving to make the reams and reams of papers, minutes, agendas, drafts, reports, motions, enquiries, statements and resolutions generated in the course of everyday parliamentary routine accessible to the citizens of the EU as quickly as possible and in a language they can understand. Alongside the translation of all the internal and external correspondence they are also responsible for the documents issued in the course of mixed parliamentary assemblies involving members of the European Parliament and members of individual national parliaments or, as well, European Ombudsmen.

In 1994 the inter-institutional Translation Centre for the Agencies of the EU came into being with its headquarters in Luxembourg with the aim of easing the strain on the overworked translation services. It places its services primarily at the disposal of the decentralised, specialised agencies of the EU and takes part in the realisation of large-scale joint projects, for example, the interactive terminology database for the European Union (IATE).

Roland Detsch

works as a free-lance editor, journalist and author in Landshut and Munich.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
December 2009

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!

Related links

Deutsch für dich

Deutsch für dich – Kostenlos gemeinsam Deutsch lernen © Goethe-Institut
Learn German together, for free

Story of a Friendship – My Favourite Book

Out of more than 4.000 entries from 57 countries the jury has chosen three winners.


News from Germany’s culture and society

Dossier: CLIL

Content and Language Integrated Learning