The EU is the only international body in which all participants can speak their own language. As of May 1, each new language requires around 60 translators, but the small island of Malta is struggling to fill these jobs.
Malta is in the EU now, but who can speak Maltese?
When the European Union opened its doors to 10 new members on May 1, it increased the number of official languages from 11 to 20. The EU is the only international organization in which all participants can speak in their own language and know that everything will be translated correctly. In fact Brussels is the place to be for foreign language fans and professional translators.
Each language entering the EU is due to hire an extra 60 translators, and with a total cost estimated at over 800 million euros, translating and interpreting is a big part of daily business in Brussels. But for the Mediterranean island of Malta, it's a job just trying to find enough people who can do the translation work.
Looking for Maltese translators
Maltese, the island nation's official language, is a mixture of old Phoenician and Arabic with a mingling of Italian and French words. For the majority of Europeans, the ancient language with Semitic roots is difficult to understand. And compared to the other nine accession countries, Malta's language is spoken by a relatively small population: Only about 400,000 people live in Malta.
Maltese flags hang in the Republic Street in Valletta
For this reason, the people involved in preparing the country for entry in the EU were excited to have Maltese accepted as an official language. Not all the regional and minority languages spoken in Europe are recognized as official EU languages.
Carmel Atald, acting director of the Maltese EU information center, explained that because Malta is small and joining a big economic bloc, many "fear a loss of identity." It's important for the government "to negotiate and obtain Maltese as an official language," he said.
But by the time the government in Valletta had achieved official status for Maltese, it was too late to train enough qualified translators and interpreters by May 1, 2004. The island had no school for translators because there had never been a need for it. English, Malta's other official language, is just as widely spoken as the local one.
Adding another language to Brussels
A university translation course was finally set up last October. Vanni Bruno, head of the island's translation unit, had been working overtime to be ready for accession. "Yes, we do have problems; it was a bit late," he admitted. "We hope to keep to certain milestone target dates. If we don't it will be very embarrassing," he said looking towards a more multi-lingual future for the island.
Meanwhile, the translation unit has offered to provide freelance translators in Malta until there are people available to fill jobs in Brussels. So far there are only a handful of Maltese interpreters. None of the current EU translators speak Maltese because there is no one to teach the language.
EU officials are downplaying the problem. On a recent visit to Valletta, the Vice President of the European Commission, Neil Kinnock, told the Maltese that their multi-lingualism will help them to train translators quickly.
"What has been represented in some quarters as a major source of difficulty, is a technical problem," he said and expressed confidence that the problem would be overcome, "not by May 1, but over a couple of years."
Pro EU supporters wave European Union and national flags during a rally in St. Andrews, Malta, on March 6, 2003. Malta's citizens voted in favor of entering in the European Union.
While the rush to train linguists continues, some people are looking ahead to the benefits of Maltese being recognized as an official European language.
Kenneth Gambin from Malta's Heritage organization said many Maltese still see their native tongue as a dialect. He's setting up a museum of Maltese language to change attitudes towards it.
"We've received good press for the museum," he said, "probably because it's an official EU language." It helps them to be "proud," where they might normally have an "ambiguous feeling to it, or be afraid to use it."
Other academics are concerned about the increasing tendency to mix Maltese and English words to the detriment of both languages. Maltese novelist and poet, Oliver Friggieri, hopes that the EU will help to preserve linguistic variety.
"Europe has to impose self-respect and self-discipline and laws. If Brussels insists, then the future of small languages is guaranteed. If left to individual countries, greater forces will prevail," and language diversity will be lost, he said.
In the meantime, EU interpreters will be faced with the daunting task of translating accession into 380 official language combinations -- that is until Maltese is spoken in Brussels.