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19th Jan 2020

Fast-talking MEPs 'drive interpreters crazy'

  • 'Speak slowly, speak in your mother tongue', Welle said. (Photo: European Parliament)

Members of the European Parliament should speak in their own language and take care not to speak too quickly, to prevent interpreters from going “crazy”, the parliament's secretary-general has said.

“It is important that people do not speak too fast,” Klaus Welle said at a meeting of the parliament's budgetary control committee on Thursday (4 February).

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  • The European Parliament has around 330 interpreters on staff. (Photo: European Parliament)

He pointed out that some speakers in plenary and committee sessions churn out up to 180 words per minute.

Welle met the interpreters last month to discuss their grievances, and made the request on their behalf.

“Speak slowly, speak in your mother tongue. Those are the main elements which lead to a deterioration in quality,” he noted. “It drives them crazy.”

Recruitment 'not a problem'

It is much easier for interpreters to translate if the speaker uses his or her mother tongue.

Welle made his request in his native tongue, German, not long after the chair of the meeting had to ask one of the participants to speak slower so that the interpreters could keep up with him.

That same morning in the parliament's plenary session in Strasbourg at least two MEPs and one commissioner did not stick to the advice and spoke English instead of Dutch, Estonian and Romanian, respectively.

Some MEPs use English because they find it easier to express themselves in a language that can be directly understood by many of their peers, rather than rely on a translation.

The European Parliament has roughly 330 interpreters on staff as well as a pool of freelancers to deploy.

MEPs have the right to speak in their own language, and the house has 24 official languages.

But not all languages are always available. The budgetary control committee meeting for example was translated into 16 languages. One Slovenian MEP complained that meetings of the transport committee are not translated in her language.

This is not due to a lack of available staff, said Welle.

“We don't have any problem with recruiting interpreters,” he noted, but added that there was a “major problem” with the facilities and the number of interpreter booths.

"We don't have a sufficient number of meeting rooms that correspond to the language profiles of the committees," he said.

He accepted that the issue could work to the disadvantage of lesser-spoken languages, which he promised to protect.

Unequal burden

He also pointed out that Turkish translators would soon be needed because of a possible peace deal in Cyprus. The agreement would reunite the Greek and Turkish speaking parts of the island, making Turkish another official language.

He noted that the interpretation service needed to be as efficient as possible “otherwise we won't be able to maintain the service”.

One issue is that the workload is not evenly distributed among interpreters, he said.

“Some people are overburdened and others are not doing enough,” noted Welle, saying that the number of hours in the interpretation booth can vary between six and 16 hours.

He also said there were some challenges in creating the right incentives for interpreters to learn additional languages.

“Someone who adds languages, finds himself working longer. Someone who doesn't make that effort is less usable and will work only six to eight hours.”

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