The translation flow is an enormous challenge to the EU. A serious amount of workforce is engaged as permanent or temporary staff, as trainees, freelancers and contractors. It is not possible to present the official figures of the entire translation staff outside and within the EU, as competitions are constantly being organized and especially with corporate contractors there would be no way to collect the number of translators, working part- or full-time on EU translation.
The First Official and Working Languages
The first Community Regulation determining official languages was passed in 1958: Regulation number 1 determining the languages to be used by the EEC. At the time Dutch, French, German and Italian were specified as the first official and working languages of the EU.
There are two main entitlements for languages with “official and working” status, as the website of the European Commission describes:
- documents may be sent to EU institutions and a reply received in any of these languages
- EU regulations and other legislative documents are published in the official and working languages, as is the Official Journal
Logically, the Regulation is amended every time a new language is added. Moreover, a special Council Conclusion 2005/C 148/01 was passed with regard to the use of additional languages within the Council. The Conclusion says that additional languages, other than the languages referred to in Council Regulation No 1/1958 “whose status is recognized by the Constitution of a Member State on all or part of its territory or the use of which as a national language is authorised by law”, may be allowed to use such a language as a means of communication between the member state and the European Parliament and Council (and other authorities) in certain cases, described in the mentioned Conclusion. An example of such a language is Catalan.
Even though all official languages are also theoretically considered working languages, in practice only three languages are widely and unofficially accepted as EU working languages – English, German and French. For EU citizens it is good to know that every EU official language can be used as a means of correspondence with the EU bodies. Moreover, according to the founding treaty of the EU, an EU national has the right to receive a reply in the same language.
In 2013, the EU increased its official languages with one more, after Croatia joined the Union on 1 July. Now they are 24 for the 28 member states. With the candidates countries Iceland, Montenegro, Serbia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Turkey the official languages may one day reach 29.
There are several responsible bodies in charge of translation, such as the two Directorates General for Translation of the European Commission and of the European Parliament and the Translation Centre for the Bodies of the European Union based in Luxembourg, which serve the EU agencies. The Centre currently has 210 staff members, 100 of them being translators. The other EU institutions also have their own translation units.
According to official figures from the Translation Directorate General of the European Commission, in 2012 it translated a total of 1 760 615 pages. The greatest percentage of translated pages was into English – 14,92%, followed by French (8,25%) and German (6,45%). Only 0,38% (6,680 pages) were translated into other languages apart from the official EU languages, which then were 23. The least translated target EU languages were Latvian and Estonian (3,41% each), Maltese (3,37%), and Irish (only 0,41%). In 2012 a total of 2 273 permanent and temporary staff was employed in translation, translators being 64,8% (1 474).
The above figures concern only the DG of the European Commission without interpretation services. There is a separate DG Interpretation with the European Commission and DG for Interpretation and Conferences with the European Parliament. In 2012 only the Commission’s Interpretation DG had 578 staff interpreters and 3 000 accredited freelance interpreters.
The use of working languages of the EU saves a lot of translation efforts and reduces the burden, as it is not possible to translate all EU documentation into all the 24 official languages. Especially regarding the working documents, such a translation is often not necessary. The European Commission uses English, French and German in general as procedural languages, whereas the European Parliament provides translation into different languages according to the needs of its Members. But as was noted above, English, French and German are widely accepted as working languages of the EU.
Misunderstandings and mistranslations
There are a number of challenges in the translation service. Misunderstandings and mistranslations are a common type of problem in translation and especially in interpretation. In June 2012 the German Bundestag had to resend over a hundred important EU documents, because its members could not work out what they were supposed to say. According to Article 314 of the EC Treaty, all language versions of the Treaty are considered authentic. This, however, causes problems to the Court of Justice to solve cases when it has to decide which is the reference language and to bear in mind all concerned language versions as authentic. Another problem is the delay in translation. For example, in 2004 the British Guardian reported that the British government claimed that backlogs in translating a new EU patent law into the then 20 EU languages had resulted in poor countries' patients being deprived of cheap life-saving medicines. Expenses are another issue. In an attempt to cut translation costs earlier in 2013, the European Commission introduced a specialized translation tool, which stores EU terminology.
The MT@EC is currently in a pilot operation phase, which will last until 2014. The focus is elaborating and testing methods and structures for better serving the needs of different types of customers - including Member States’ public administrations - under different conditions of use. The new tool is expected to reduce costs and to increase translation speed. The Commission is expected later to post the results of the project.
The European Commission’s DG Translation costs 330 million euro per year. In 2004-2007 with the increase of EU’s official languages from 11 to 23 the translation costs increased by 20%. With the accession of Croatia translation costs will certainly increase, but in the long run the introduction of tools as the MT@EC may significantly cut down the expenses. In 2012 the European Parliament also tried to cut its translation services in an attempt to save 8,6 million euro per year. According to rough estimates, the cost of all language services in all EU institutions amounts to less than 1% of the annual general budget of the EU, reveals the Commission’s website.
Europe's multilingual and multicultural societies – living across languages and national borders
Since the European Union takes numerous measures to respect equally its member states, there would be no other path but to accept the linguistic diversity of its member states. All EU official languages are considered to be equal. An EU member state does not automatically have its language recognized as an EU official language. The member state files a request to the EU and the EU decides whether to accept the national language as an official EU language. Sometimes not all official languages of a country (when more than one) are accepted as official EU languages. The state chooses which language(s) to request, but it is at the discretion of the Council to decide which language(s) to accept. An example is Cyprus, which has two official languages – Greek and Turkish, but only Greek is an EU official language. It is not a secret that English, French and German are used more than the other languages in the EU. There have even been proposals, such the one from the German president to leave English as the only EU official language and thus save costs on translation. Such a proposal has been criticized as being undemocratic and limiting multilingualism.
Multilingualism is an important aspect of EU’s cultural diversity and provides for freedom of speech and expression, access to information, and equality among member states. To the question why so many official languages, the Commission gives the following reply: “As a democratic organisation, the EU has to communicate with its citizens in their own language. The same goes for national governments and civil services, businesses and other organisations all over the EU. Europeans have a right to know what is being done in their name. They must also be able to play an active part without having to learn other languages. The EU institutions pass laws that apply directly to everyone in the EU. Everybody — individuals, organisations and the courts — must be able to understand them, which means they must be available in all official languages. Using as many national languages as possible makes the EU and its institutions more open and effective.”
1. European Commission official website, Languages section
2. European Commission, DG Translation website
3. Trends in Linguistics. Formal Linguistics and Law. Guenther Grewendorf, Monika Rathert. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, D-10785 Berlin.