Behind the scenes in the EU’s 24 official languages

The European Union is the world’s most multilingual organisation. All 503 million citizens of 28 member states have the right to communicate with the EU in their own language, and to receive information in their own language too. In the European Parliament, all 751 MEPs also have the right to speak in their own language, and to receive a live translation of everything that is going on.

I’ve always wondered how this actually works. How can you have people translating into and out of 24 official languages? Who’s the guy that’s employed to translate letters written in Irish into Maltese? How do speeches made in Estonian sound in Slovenian? And again, who is that person sitting in Brussels who speaks both Estonian and Slovenian well enough to be able to do the job properly? Well, last week I got a chance to find out.

The 26th September 2015 was the European Day of Languages. This is when across Europe we celebrate the continent’s amazing linguistic diversity, and I was invited to Brussels by the European Commission to take part in a debate there on multilingualism. And as part of my visit, they offered to show me around!

image3“Some languages are just like a work of art”

For some reason I’d always assumed that translating and interpreting would be much of a muchness. Of course it was different, but I at least thought they’d share the same office, or be in the same building.

The reality was quite different, as I was to discover. The better half of my morning was spent stuck in rush-hour traffic on a bus from the European Parliament out into the outskirts of the Belgian capital, for my first appointment at the EU’s Directorate-General for Translation.

I eventually arrived flustered, jumbling my regular and irregular French verbs to try and ask the security guard whether I was in the right place, and then was greeted by Harro Glastra, the DGT’s Information and Communications officer, who took me to the offices where we filmed a short video about language learning and translation.

My next meeting was coffee with the EU’s very own team of polyglots. These guys all translated into and out of 7, 8 or more languages, and as they told actually spoke and studied many more. My biggest surprise though, was that of all the people there the language that nearly everybody had studied was Greek. In fact, Greek was everywhere! It was like the EU’s unofficial lingua franca as the polyglots chatted away, and one of them (from Greece) handed out slices of cake she’d made to everybody because it was her name day.

The impression I got from these guys is that they really, really love languages. They’re not afraid to take on harder ones like Greek, Hungarian and Estonian, and even though all of us at that table learned languages in different ways and for different reasons, what we all had in common was a real passion for them. Graham, one of the polyglot translators also from the UK, talked about how languages just had an intrinsic beauty about them, and he appreciated them like a work of art.

However after starting a conversation that could have gone on for days, it was time to move on to my next meeting. We said our goodbyes and I made them all promise to come to the next Polyglot Conference, and I headed off to meet the translators’ distant cousins – the interpreters.

“See inside a person’s mind”

Back in the European Quarter, my next visit was to the European Parliament. After waiting briefly with a security guard who refused to speak French and only English, I was greeted by my guide.

image6“Zdravo, dobrodošao!” he said and shook my hand. “Jam sam iz Hrvatske i čuo sam da govoriš srpski!” Again, another language that I would never have expected to hear in the European Parliament, especially seeing as Croatia only joined two years ago.

It seemed like I’d picked a bad day to visit for seeing any ‘action’, as the EU’s special meeting on the migrant crisis had just finished the night before and everybody was exhausted, but nonetheless I met with the heads of the English, Finnish and Italian units who talked to me more about how interpreting works.

“It’s very different to translation,” they all told me. It turns out that simultaneous translation is still a very young profession that only really started life as part of the Nuremburg trials after the Second World War. It just wasn’t feasible to have consecutive interpreting then, as there needed to be a live translation into multiple languages so that people in the courts could follow, without delaying proceedings.

They all talked about their passion for interpreting as an intellectual exercise, as much as anything else.

“There really is no better way to see inside a person’s mind,” Miguel Gomes, the head of the English unit told me. Having to take someone’s ideas and convey them instantly in another language requires you to think like them, and see the world through their eyes.

And unlike in translation, for interpreters being able to read so-called ‘extra-linguistic factors’ such as tone of voice, body language, facial expression and cultural behaviour are just as important as the language they’re using when it comes to producing a reliable translation.

Relay languages, and the one language that holds everything together

IMG_9205I spent that afternoon with Marjana Rupnik, head of the Slovene Unit of SCIC (the EU’s interpeting team) who, again, greeted me with a warm ‘Zdravo’ and a handshake, before telling me “Pričam srpski i hrvatski, ali puno miješano sve.” Bizarrely, this officially made the Balkan languages the ones I used the most in Brussels.

I asked Marjana how interpreting from 24 languages into 24 languages can possibly work in practice. Was she going to introduce me to the Estonian expert from Ljubljana?

She smiled and told me that sadly, that’s not how it works. Yes, the interpreters are all listening to the speakers, but they’re also listening to each other too. When somebody starts speaking in a more obscure language like Estonian or Hungarian, that first gets translated into a ‘relay’ language, which all the other interpreters listen in to, and then translate into their own.

But did that mean that everything just gets translated into and out of English first? Well, actually not.

“English is not a good relay language. It has a very different, more concise style of speaking and doesn’t match up so well to languages like French, German and so on,” Marjana told me. “To make something sound good in English, you often have to cut lots of detail out which means that by the time the message gets to Slovene, it’s no good.”

It turns out that the one language that more or less holds the whole system together is Dutch. “The Dutch team have always had the most coverage of smaller languages, which means lots of interpreters learn Dutch to use it as a relay and cover more languages,” Marjana told me.

Later we went and sat in a vacant booth and I listened in to the Greek team interpreting a meeting on fishing regulations with all the member states present. Marjana showed me that all the codes next to people’s names indicated the languages they were comfortable listening to, but the ones that they would rather speak in. I looked around the other booths with a newfound appreciate for the work that they do, and the complex mechanism that allows it to happen.

English: the elephant in the room

One thing I noticed during my visit to the European Union did concern me a little bit. Despite proudly being the world’s most multilingual institution, there did seem to be one language that things kept coming back to: English.

IMG_9429I’d noticed from watching clips from the European Parliament that so many politicians, for example, gave important speeches in English, sometimes of questionable quality. Although their intentions and ideas might be commendable, their inability to express them in decent sounding English meant that by the time their message reached the shores of the UK, most people find it hard to take them seriously.

One example is Guy Verhofstadt’s impassioned rant in July at Alexis Tsipras (who spoke Greek), which at points is hard to even clearly make out what he’s saying.

Why do politicians, who would clearly be able to make this speech more eloquently in their native language, choose not to do so? Why does the EU spend billions each year on maintaining the largest and greatest system of simultaneous interpretation in the world, if people then just completely ignore it?

It’s a question that is more complicated than it first seems. At the debate I spoke at on the Friday, I was disappointed that the speeches on multilingualism made by the Bulgarian and Romanian vice-presidents of the European Commission were in English. Equally, all except one of the panellists then spoke English, and when the audience were asked to put their questions to the panel in their native language, some just said “Thanks, but no thanks.”

In my closing remarks of the debate, I said I’m worried that most people take multilingualism in Europe to mean native language plus English. I’m even more worried that English has become a kind of ‘prestige’ language in the EU. How anyone can expect foreign students to want to learn their native language when they don’t even consider it worthy of having a platform in the European Parliament is beyond me.

A truly multilingual Europe is one that does not use English as a lingua franca. I’d like to see the EU start more initiatives to encourage people to learn the languages of their neighbouring countries, by investing in decent classroom materials, training teachers, and providing incentives for doing so. This is something that my friend Richard Simcott has talked about as well.

For reasons to do with market forces and US-centric popular culture, English is the most powerful language in the world. It is not a neutral language, and as the interpreters told me, it’s not always that reliable as an intermediary language either. Its de-facto world dominance is giving English speakers an unfair advantage in the world, and if it is to remain the world’s most multilingual institution, this is surely something the EU needs to tackle.

For now, though, I think I’m going to go and learn some more Dutch.


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