The European Union’s 508 million citizens speak more than 60 different languages between them. Despite the growing prevalence of English, the most commonly spoken language in the EU, only 38% of all Europeans can hold a conversation in English, let alone understand a television broadcast or read a newspaper article.
But if the European Union is supposed to “speak with one voice” on free trade agreements, agricultural subsidies, and even Brexit, what language should it be using?
Put simply, most of them.
According to a spokesperson from the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, “all citizens of the European Union have the right to access all documents in the 24 official language(s) [of state]…and should be able to write to the Commission and receive a response in their own language.”
Hence the need for the European Union’s teams of translators and interpreters, a small band of warriors with a seemingly insatiable appetite for the written and spoken word. Split between offices in Brussels and Luxembourg, these men and women are responsible for making the European Union’s laws, speeches, and press releases accessible to the EU’s multilingual masses.
In order for laws to be adopted in the EU’s 28 national parliaments, translators (numbering around 1,500) are responsible for translating European regulations from Brussels into Europe’s 24 official languages of state. Translators usually speak around five languages but generally translate texts into their own mother tongue.
“When I was a young teenager, I wanted to be a cabin crew member for an airline, out of some desire to see more of the world. Then, when I was sixteen, I chose to become a translator instead. What I liked most was that there’s not much ego to the work, as translating is never really something that concerns yourself,” says Lars, 49, a Danish translator who translates European laws into his mother tongue for a living.
Translators’ turn of phrase for regulatory terms like “total loss-absorbing capacity” or “emissions trading scheme” can quickly turn political, however, as one grammatical slip risks entirely change the meaning of European rules.
“To avoid splitting hairs in the European Court of Justice, there is a team of legal linguists for all 24 languages that check our work for unexpected loopholes,” Lars said.
Meanwhile, EU interpreters are responsible for giving on-the-spot audio translations of press briefings, public hearings, and important closed-door meetings of European heads of state.
“For a job as an interpreter, Brussels is the best of the best. We’re put in a very privileged position, as we’re not politicians, but we get to see firsthand how politics really happens in Europe,” says Inés, 33, a Spanish interpreter for the European Commission.
Interpreters also claim that the unusual nature of their work is a severe drain on their mental resources, especially over long periods of time.
“While interpreting, you’re juggling five tasks at once – you’ve got to listen to the speaker, process what he or she’s saying, formulate the spoken words into your own language, say them out loud, and then listen to your own output and make sure it’s been delivered correctly,” said Michel, 42, a French interpreter who works inside the European Parliament.
“After years of work, you internally recycle so much information that you start to lose your short-term memory.”
Like many other professions, both interpreters and translators have seen the nature of their work drastically change as new technologies begin to outpace average human productivity.
“When I started translating in the 1990s, we were still working with typewriters. We would literally cut and paste paragraphs out of old legal publications and journals and lay them into new draft legislation, using scissors and glue,” Lars says of his first years working as a translator for the European institutions.
Given the near instantaneous translation powers of services like Google Translate, translators like Lars can now translate any document into hundreds of different languages in the blink of an eye.
However, the advent of new technologies can be a source of tension for translators and interpreters, whose work quotas have spiked in recent years as the EU attempts to “slim down” and reduce labour costs by around 5%.
“We don’t especially appreciate being treated like multilingual secretaries that can be replaced by a Google voice box, as has been more and more often the case,” said Michel.
But even with the rise of language recognition software and instantaneous translation, the human element to the translation and interpretation of language is a unique input that cannot be replicated by machine learning, some argue.
“Voice recognition software isn’t sophisticated enough to replace us yet. Accents are nearly impossible for standardized language software to hear and to interpret. I’m not sure it could ever even get there,” says Inés.
“Empathy is the most important part of translating or interpreting another person’s words. Can you imagine what the world really looks like from their own point of view? Do you know where they’ve come from, what kind of language they’ve grown up with? If you can’t, then you’ll never do their words justice.”
And so long as Europe stands without a Tower of Babel, without one language to rule them all, then the human touch of translators and interpreters seems to be here to stay.
“If European cooperation is to be made real in practice, and European law is to apply in 28 different countries, then the EU’s public activities have to be available to all European citizens in a large majority of Europe’s official languages, no matter how prevalent English may become in everyday life,” said Lars.
“So long as there are 24 official languages inside the EU, that’s the way things will be.”
Article contributed by Alexander Saeedy