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Tuesday, 8 January, 2002, 16:24 GMT
EU braces for linguistic Babylon
Renovated building of the European Commission in Brussels
The EU bureaucracy generates thousands of documents

In a year's time the European Union is expected to approve the membership applications of up to 10 new countries, from Estonia on the Baltic coast to Malta in the Mediterranean.

Enlarging the EU will bring with it enormous political and financial challenges - but it poses a few linguistic problems as well.

Already, hundreds of interpreters work in European institutions in Brussels every day.


The right of every member state to use its language has to be sustained

Neil Kinnock

They have 11 official languages to deal with, enough to keep everyone pretty busy.

Carol Montgomery has worked as an English interpreter since 1972.

She has watched the number of EU countries rise - and seen the system of what is called relay translation taking root:

"There are more people and more languages now," she says.

"Perhaps in the French booth, there will be an interpreter who understands Greek and who will work from Greek into French, and then we will tune in to the French channel to give an English rendering."

The system of relay translation can get quite complicated at times.

"It is the kind of job where you can never rest on your laurels, you have to keep retraining, learning new things, adding new languages," she says.

But it is not just meetings and press conferences, there are also thousands and thousands of documents that have to be translated.

EU flags
The translation service at the Commission faces an uphill struggle

And it is going to get worse.

The coming enlargement of the European Union could more or less double the number of official languages - and the system could start grinding to a halt.

But the European Commission says it won't - and works on urgent plans to deal with the multi-lingual mix resulting from the most complicated enlargement the EU has ever seen.

Secret weapon

The Commission's secret weapons is a computer-based translation system which can process 2,000 pages an hour.

It is certainly not perfect; a missing hyphen meant it recently translated "vice-president" into Spanish as the "president of vice".

But it can save time, even if it is no real substitute for hard human graft.

The system is currently being updated to include Hungarian and Polish, but the majority of new languages will still be left out - Estonian, Latvian, and Czech, for example.

"It would be nice to have all languages", says one official dealing with the computer system.

But that will take some time.

In the meantime, translators and interpreters brush up their linguistic skills and learn new languages.

European Commissioner Neil Kinnock
Neil Kinnock sparked controversy with proposals to simplify the system

For the time being, that is the only way to cope - because languages are a deeply emotional subject involving core issues of national pride.

When the European Commission tabled proposals for bureaucratic reform recently, the French and the Germans detected a plot to secure the supremacy of English by stealth.

Never mind that things are already heading in that direction - a decade ago, most EU documents were drafted in French.

Now, nearly two thirds are in English.

But the Commission's Vice-President, Neil Kinnock, admits that his colleagues are somewhat sensitive about the issue.

"It is essential that the right of every member state to use its language has to be sustained, and there has to be a recognition of the list of official languages and a complete honouring of the right of a European citizen to communicate in the language of choice and to get a reply in that language."

So while the spread of English continues, interpreters and translators are in great demand - and the more obscure someone's language skills, the better.

Language combinations

There are already more than 100 possible language combinations in the EU.

Within a few years, there could be more than 600.

So when enlargement actually happens, Europe's commitment to linguistic diversity will be put to the test as never before.

See also:

14 Aug 01 | UK Politics
EU translation plan provokes protest
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