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European Babel

DW staff / AFP (th)January 1, 2007

The European Union has a New Year's challenge: to assimilate three new languages in 2007. The EU, already burdened with 20 official languages, officially promotes linguistic diversity but often defaults to English.

Irish Gaelic is now official in BrusselsImage: picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb

Bulgarian, Romanian and Gaelic will become official EU languages on Jan. 1, further complicating Europe's ability to communicate.

Since its inception, the EU has been multilingual and working with multiple languages has always proved challenging. The interpreting and translating require large amounts of money and linguistic finesse. But in this Babel-like environment, English often ends up being the language used in official business.

Multilingualism a priority

Sprachlabor bei der europäischen Kommission
The demand for interpreters is high, and growingImage: The European Commission

Yet the EU remains committed to multilingualism, even as Bulgaria and Romania join Monday, bringing two additional languages with them.

"The diversity of languages is our common richness and the promotion of this diversity is a clear priority," said Europe's commissioner for multilingualism, Jan Figel.

When the EU is enlarged, a number of official languages climbs. But even within member states, regional languages and bilingualism are promoted. Irish Gaelic is a case in point, which is also being added to the EU language roster, a move seen by its advocates as a way to promote the Irish language.

Currently, the EU's three main institutions employ approximately 4,000 interpreters and translators. Another 1,500 freelancers are also used. This costs EU taxpayers close to 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) each year, "less than one percent of the total budget," as the European Commission likes to stress.

Even with all this money, the EU is short of people, particularly those who are fluent in less frequently spoken languages. One way around this is to use a relay system. An interpreter who translates from English into Dutch might use the translation of an English-speaking colleague for a politician who is speaking Greek, since Greek to Dutch translators can be hard to find. This demands high precision, speed and concentration during live events such as meetings or press conferences.

Those working in Brussels are "under constant pressure to learn more languages," said Patrice Liberman, a Belgian interpreter working for the EU since 1991.

He already speaks eight: Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Russian and Spanish.

English often the default language

Sprachverwirrung in der EU Zeichnung
The EU promotes linguistic diversityImage: The European Commission

With so many languages entering conversations, English often becomes dominant by default. Most of the 2.8 million pages of documents produced by the EU in 2005 were written in English. Translation into the EU's other two "big" working languages--French and German--happens later.

The number of interpreters cannot keep pace with the growing number of languages and language combinations. This means the "smaller" tongues are often translated only at big meetings. As a result, officials tend to speak English themselves or listen to English translations of remarks and questions. This makes bad English a linguistic currency in Brussels and frustrates translators.

"We don't want to be only decorative, we want to be listened to," said Ieva Zauberga, a Latvian who moved to Brussels when her country joined the EU two years ago.

The EU's multilinguism doesn't show any signs of halting. Croatia could be next, as its entry is scheduled for 2009-2010. Starting next summer, a new building will have 30 studios for interpreters, instead of the 21 currently available.

But the prediction is that the hiring problems won't disappear, making English increasingly Europe's lingua franca.