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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 December, 2004, 19:53 GMT
EU grapples with translation boom
By Manuela Saragosa
BBC Europe business reporter in Brussels

Voting in the European Parliament
The EU is multilingual even when it comes to saying "yes" or "no"
Making sure delegations from European Union member states understand each other when they meet in Brussels is no easy feat.

It is up to the European Commission's Directorate-General for Interpretation to make sure communication at meetings and conferences is smooth.

That was particularly challenging after 10 new member countries joined the EU in May this year, adding nine new official languages to the EU's existing 11.

For the Directorate-General of Interpretation that involved more than a decade of preparation.

The problem was that professionally-trained interpreters in many of the candidate countries were few and far between.

It was up to the directorate-general - which every day provides between 700 and 800 interpreters for 60 meetings - to develop a pool of skilled people from which to recruit.

"You have to take into account that in post-communist countries like Latvia, interpretation was not a profession," says Ieva Zauberga, one of the newest recruits to the Commission's team of interpreters.

"The profession started developing only after 1991 because it was a closed world, you didn't need to communicate with foreigners, and you had to build it all from scratch."


The directorate-general had to lobby applicant countries to invest in training interpreters, a cost the Commission does not cover.

Any country or organisation should be able to send their best expert to Brussels to meet with other countries, and not their best linguist
Ian Andersen
Directorate-General for Interpretation
That was not always easy. Often, delegations sent by candidate countries to negotiate in Brussels in the run-up to their EU membership would speak fluent English or French and would not understand the need for interpreters.

Tony Scott, head of department at the directorate-general, had to convince them otherwise.

"I usually try to find a particular product or something which is very important to them, and where they will have serious financial interests to defend. One case I've used a couple of times is olive oil, " he says.

"So I put it to them: 'You're an olive oil producer, you'll have to represent your olive oil interests at these meetings, do you want to do that in a foreign language?' And they usually say, 'Oh no, you're right'."

'Relay' interpretation

Still, even today the Commission does not have enough staff to cover all of the languages, particularly some of the rarer combinations involving Maltese or Slovenian.

That means they have to rely on what is known as "relay" interpretation: interpreters listen to an English-language translation of say a Latvian speech, and use the English version to interpret into other languages.

Some critics argue it would be easier, not to mention cheaper, for the Commission to stick to just one official language.

Ian Andersen, head of communication and information at the directorate-general, disagrees.

"Our view has always been that any country or organisation should be able to send their best expert to Brussels to meet with other countries, and not their best linguist," he says.

It would not necessarily make more financial sense either, he points out.

"Let's say we only had one language in Brussels, for example English. You'd still have the transaction cost because you'd have to train everyone to speak English."

The Commission's argument is that because it has dedicated departments - one for simultaneous interpretation and one for translation of the written word - it can guarantee uniform quality across the board.

It also says the costs are not extravagant.

The cost of all translation and interpretation in EU institutions amounted to just over US$2.50 per citizen last year. That is about as much as a cup of coffee, the Commission likes to point out. The cost is expected to rise by a further US$0.75 per citizen as more people are recruited.

But there is no let-up. The Commission is already preparing for the next wave of enlargement, which could mean more languages, such as Romanian and Bulgarian. Multilingual decision-making, it seems, only works with years of preparation.

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