Complaining about EU bureaucracy has been fashionable for some time. One thing the average taxpayer likes to get worked up about is the allegedly high cost of translating every EU report into the 23 official languages of the European Union. But the criticism is unfounded.
Prejudices are the single biggest obstacle to the truth. And one prejudice about the EU is that protecting Europe’s languages in a united continent is costing the taxpayer a fortune. It’s a perfect story for an intrepid journalist pursuing truth and progress.
I already knew how to find my way out of this mess: Write a plea for the use of English as a de facto lingua franca in Europe, make a pragmatic choice of one language for informal and official communication among all European institutions, instead of the current expensive language muddle.
A little research never hurts, even if the facts are clear and everyone’s opinion is already set in stone. So I called the European Commission at their Berlin number and sent two e-mails to the information services of the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers. That turned out to be a mistake – my finely honed theory of an expensive European Babel collapsed like a house of cards.
The cost of translation and interpreting in the EU offers little cause for outrage. Altogether, all the written communication by the three main EU institutions – the Parliament, the Commission and the Council – cost about €1.1 billion last year. Another €200 million annually goes for interpreter services. It all adds up €1.3 billion – or about one percent of the EU’s budget of €126.5 billion.
That doesn’t just sound like a good thing - it is a good thing. The only grounds for criticism is the productivity of the EU's language services. According to the budget oversight office, they are less productive than translators in the private sector. And freelance translators would cost about one-third less. So there is room for savings, right?
Wrong. In 2007, EU translators processed more than two million pages, each numbering about 1,500 characters. If you were to translate this huge amount of draft memos, decisions, laws and regulations – plus all the correspondence – into the 23 official languages of the 27 EU members, you need more than just translators and interpreters. When just one small interpretation or translation error can cause a political crisis, what you really need are expert linguists gifted in the nuances.
EU interpreters and translators must be willing to absorb more and more aspects of an ever-growing number of EU languages. It can be law, politics or jargon in Bulgarian, Danish, Estonian, Finnish, French or Greek. Alongside their everyday work, translators always need continuing education and training.
The basic principle is that all legal documents, including correspondence with the outside world and the official register, must be translated into each of the 23 languages. In addition, every citizen of the European Union can write to any EU agency or official in any of those languages – and the response must be in the same language.
Pragmatism dominates day-to-day activities, since everyday communication largely takes place in English and French. However, within EU committees, all 23 languages are placed on equal footing – unless participants have agreed on an alternate arrangement.
It’s not enough to be fluent in one of the main European languages such as English, French, German, Italian or Spanish to get a job as an EU linguist. Interpreters and translators also work with, for example, Maltese, the sole Semitic language that is written using the Latin alphabet.
Despite such a high volume of work, the EU language services – such as the Directorate-General for Translation – make do with only around 2,200 staff. The European Parliament employs just 365 interpreters, in addition to 1,000 freelancers – little waste to be found there. Nor is there any sign of undue ideological influence in the support, suppression or preferential treatment of any language.
Instead, we get a trans-European pragmatism that never loses sight of the costs for taxpayers in the member states. One criticism could be that the constant clamor to save money means losing sight of other potential advantages. Translators and interpreters gain new knowledge whenever people communicate in several languages. Researchers should have access to that growing body of knowledge so that future generations of EU interpreters and translators can profit.