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EU Is a Continental Tower of Babel

Its 11 official languages will expand to 20 next year. Translating all speeches and texts will cost taxpayers more than $1 billion a year.

August 17, 2003|Veronika Oleksyn | Associated Press Writer

BRUSSELS — Good morning. Guten morgen. Bonjour. Buenos dias. Buon giorno. Huomenta. God morgen. Bom dia. Goeiemorgen. Kalimera. God morgon.

The 11 official languages of the European Union already make for quite a mouthful, and starting in May, the linguistic kaleidoscope adds new colors when a fresh batch of member states add nine newcomers to the mix.

It's going to cost European taxpayers more than $1 billion a year just to translate all the speeches and official texts generated by the continental Tower of Babel. The figure will rise yet again if Romania and Bulgaria join in 2006 as planned.

The European Union already makes the United Nations look a bit provincial.

There, 191 member states get by with six official and working languages: English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian and Chinese.

At the European Union, however, all national tongues are equal, although Irish, Catalan, Luxemburgesch, Welsh and other "Lesser Used Languages," as they are called in Eurospeak, never made the cut for official status.

In reality, English has emerged as the main working language among the 16,000 Eurocrats at EU headquarters, according to Daniel Gros, director of the Centre for European Policy Studies.

EU interpreters say English has won out because more Europeans study it as their main foreign language.

English's primacy within the EU is ironic since the British are among the leading "Euroskeptics," fearing that their independence will be smothered by the EU embrace.

However, their language supplanted French in the mid-1990s after Sweden, Austria and Finland joined. English is the major foreign language taught in their schools.

The trend is expected to accelerate after Malta and the former communist countries, where learning English is the rage, swell EU ranks to 25 next year.

German, with 90 million speakers in Germany, Austria and parts of Belgium, is the mother tongue of nearly one-quarter of people in the EU -- more than any other language -- yet it too has been edged out by English.

However, the English that echoes through the glass and concrete halls of the EU is not quite the same as heard at Buckingham Palace.

"English always gets butchered," said one of the EU's 700 interpreters. "International English is a kind of pidgin English."

Interpreters, a tight-knit crowd, are reluctant to go on the record about their shortcomings, but one can glean plenty of examples simply by putting on a pair of earphones.

Take, for instance, the French speaker whose "head counts" became "hit counts." Or the Dutch representative who told a colleague that he didn't "want to mow the lawn before your feet." He meant to say he didn't want to "pull the rug out from under you."

Vincent Buck, a Belgian interpreter who has worked at the EU for 13 years, fears that the quality of English will get worse as the EU expands.

"Even though English is going to become the new gold standard, it's going to lead to more inefficiency and misunderstandings," he said.

Reducing the number of languages to a U.N.-sized half a dozen won't work because EU laws and regulations must be translated into legal languages of all member states and enacted by each EU government.

Multilingual bureaucrats and ministers might be able to function with a smaller number of languages.

But nobody expects a farmer in Poland, a fisherman in Latvia or a shopkeeper in Slovakia to understand a regulation published in someone else's language.

Raising the number of EU languages from the current 11 to 20 next year will require a lot more translators on the EU payroll.

A meeting in which 20 languages are spoken will require at least 60 interpreters, according to EU officials. That's nearly double the current requirement.

This year, the EU's 1,300 translators must convert 1.3 million pages of official documents into various EU languages.

By 2006, that number is expected to rise to 2.4 million pages a year.

Most of the new translators will come from the new member countries. However, EU officials complain that those countries are not producing top-flight interpreters quickly enough.

Milojka Popovic, who trains interpreters at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, said 40 to 50 Slovenes applied for translator training this year but only 10 were admitted, in part because of limited facilities.

The school, above a pub in downtown Ljubljana, receives EU funding, but has only four booths in which students can practice simultaneous translating.

"There's no point to enrolling them if there's no room for them," she said in a telephone interview.

With time running out, EU officials are looking into other solutions, such as training current interpreters in new languages or establishing a "relay system" where comments in Latvian or Slovak, for example, are translated into English or French and from there into other languages.

However, the relay system is considered undesirable because it establishes a language hierarchy and can lead to mistranslations as meanings change subtly from language to language.

"People will be forced to adjust," said Eberhart Rhein of the European Policy Centre. "You might be able to speak your own language at meetings but only listen to what's being said in English and German."


Meanwhile, if you already know that guten morgen is German, bonjour is French, buenos dias is Spanish, buon giorno is Italian, huomenta is Finnish, god morgen is Danish, bom dia is Portuguese, goeiemorgen is Dutch, kalimera is Greek and god morgon is Swedish, try these:

Tere hommikust (Estonian), dobre jitro (Czech), dzien dobry (Polish), l-ghodwa t-tajba (Maltese), labrit (Latvian), laba ryta (Lithuanian); dobre rano (Slovak), jo reggelt (Hungarian) and dobro jutro (Slovene).

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