The EU has no less than 20 official languages, yet English remains the undisputed lingua franca of the union. The German government is now stepping up its efforts to make German more prominent in the EU.
German has the largest population of native speakers in Europe, but is not easy to learn
The German government is turning up the heat on the European Union to ensure all official texts are also published in the German language, officials said on Thursday.
"Germany has a right to have these documents in German," the deputy foreign minister responsible for Europe, Günter Gloser, told German news agency DPA.
The German Parliament and the French National Assembly issued a statement earlier this month denouncing an "unacceptable drift toward a monolingual system" dominated by English. Bundestag president Norbert Lammert wrote in a letter to EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso that the German parliament would refuse to debate EU documents that were not printed in the language of Goethe.
The EU is expected to respond before the next EU summit in June.
Brussels as the new Babel
The EU currently has 20 official languages and plans to add Irish, Romanian and Bulgarian to the list next year. In a measure to prevent paperwork overload, only legislations and documents of major public interest are translated in all 20 official languages. For internal purposes, each EU institution is allowed by law to make its own language arrangements.
The European Parliament resembles a 21st century tower of Babel
The Council of Europe, for example, publishes its Web site in the language of the council's rotating presidency as well as English and French. Proponents of the German language in the EU, however, strongly disagree with this practice.
"If the council presidency has to use only two languages because of personnel and financial reasons, then these two languages would have to be English and German," said Dietrich Voslamber of the German Language Association. "That way, they would reach the most people in Europe."
Twenty-four percent of EU citizens have German as their mother tongue, while English, French and Italian are each spoken by approximately 16 percent of the EU population.
Simply choosing German over French, however, would probably not go down very well in Paris. French President Jacques Chirac, an ardent champion of the French language, demonstratively walked out of the first working session of a EU summit in March in protest because the head of Europe's employers' association, a Frenchman, spoke in English.
Lost in translation
Finland, which takes over the EU presidency in July, denied media reports earlier this month that it would snub German or any other EU language when it opens its official EU presidency Web site.
The European Union is the largest translation operation in the world
Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen's office dismissed allegations that Finland would "snub" German, the most common native language in the EU with 90 million speakers, by opening two official Web sites, one in English and one in French.
Running an international, multilingual machinery such as the European Union remains a complex and expensive enterprise. According to official EU figures, the union spent 1.1 million euros ($1.4 million) in 2005 on translation services. The cost of maintaining the administration in 20 languages amounts to 1 percent of the EU's annual general budget.
EU institutions require some 80 interpreters per language on a daily basis. Approximately half of those interpreters work at the European parliament. Their job is to make sure that parliamentarians don't get lost in translation, and that the English phrase "out of sight, out of mind," for instance, does not become "invisible, insane" when rendered in other EU languages.