Language in Europe

Today I was invited to visit the European Parliament in Brussels. One thing that immediately meets the eye when you visit these buildings: Language is a very important subject in European democracy.

As the European Community is growing, so is the number of languages used. One might think: “Let them simply all communicate in English.” But it is not that simple: Every EU-citizen has to be able to take part in the democratic process. Knowledge of a foreign language should not be required to be able to do that.

And choosing a common language comes with another important problem: Which language should be used? You may think using English is obvious, but it is not. From a historical point of view, French would have been a likely choice as well. But no matter which language you choose; it is not fair! The other countries will be at a disadvantage, because people are simply more fluent in their native language, than in any other.

An alternative might be Esperanto. Esperanto is not only neutral, because it is not the language of any of the member states, but it would also take us back to a 120 year old ideal: One language for all the people in the World. (The artificial language Esperanto was first published by L. L. Zamenhof in 1887.) Unfortunately, nobody is even thinking of this possibility.

European Parliament assembly hallSo the only option is, to do a lot of translation! All documents and all spoken texts have to be translated into all the languages of all the member states. This brings about an awful lot of work: the number of translations increases quadratically with the number of languages to be translated! (With two languages, there are two directions of translation. With three languages, there are six directions. With four languages, there are twenty four… But we are talking about 19 languages here! In that case there are 19x18x2 = 684 directions of translation!) Soon we will need more interpreters and translators, than there are members in the parliament!

As a consequence of this, the EU has finally been forced to start using “relay translations” now. That means, that for instance a Hungarian translator first translates Hungarian texts into French, German or English, and after that other translators use that text to translate it into their native language. This greatly reduces the number of translators needed (at the cost of an increased likelihood of mistakes), but still you see in every meeting room there are always lots of areas reserved for the interpreters. (The translators are not so visible in Brussels, most of them are stationed in Luxemburg, because the EU also has a legal obligation to have a large number of employees working in that country.)

In short: As a translator I was feeling very much at home in Brussels.

This post is also available in: Dutch

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