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18th Jan 2020

Language director defends EU's costly translations

A high official in the European Commission's translation branch has said that despite discussions and fears in recent years about mushrooming costs for translations and interpretations in the EU, the principle of granting each citizen the right to communicate with Brussels in their own language should not be altered, no matter the number of member states in the future.

"Nobody would wish or dare to touch upon this sacred principle," Juhani Lonnroth, the director general for the commission's translation department - the world's biggest public language service - at a debate organised on Friday (22 February) by the Centre of European Policy Studies (CEPS), a Brussels-based think-tank.

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Mr Lonnroth said that the number of official languages and possible translation combinations – currently there are 506 possible combinations, such as from Finnish to Portuguese and from Maltese to Slovenian - would grow with each enlargement round.

In addition, the work load for EU officials involved in translation would expand at an estimated five percent a year.

But he noted it is not always easy to define what constitutes a language, before even thinking about giving it status as official EU language.

"Is Croatian really a language different from Serbian, or is it the same language spelled with a different alphabet? Is the Albanian spoken in Kosovo different from the Albanian in Tirana?" he asked.

"These are politically very sensitive questions. Language and power are very closely related. Throughout history, totalitarian regimes have not been keen on teaching their populations other languages than that of the ruling layers, for instance."

The Finnish director said that the EU would have to look at other ways of maintaining work efficiency than by cutting down on languages, for instance by scrapping unnecessary text.

The average length of a commission communication has decreased from 37 pages to 15 pages during Mr Lonnroth's time presiding over the department.

"Do we have to produce everything we produce, and do we have to be so voluminous, use so many words? If you cannot say what you want in 15 pages, well then maybe you should not say it at all," he said.

He also brushed off complaints from larger member states that have had to cut down on translation staff to accommodate translators from smaller countries, such as island state Malta, which in proportion to its population has a bigger staff than they do.

"We are looking at rights, not numbers. If there is one Maltese person who does not understand the paper put before him, he has the same rights as any German to have the document translated into his own language.

"And in the end, the difference is the amount of copies you pre-set the printer for, 90 million for the Germans or 300,000 for the Maltese," he said.

The union annually spends some €1.1 billion on translation and interpretation – around one percent of the EU budget - every year, or €2.50 per citizen. This pays for 2,500 staff, or a tenth of the commission's entire work force.

English is the lingua franca

The Finnish- and Swedish-speaking director also admitted to the handiness of using mostly one language - English - as a basic 'tool-kit' for work.

But he underlined that the rise of a lingua franca does not take away the need for proper foreign language schooling in all member states, above all, in Anglophone countries, who lag behind in language learning.

"I am not a fanatic. I do not have a religious problem with speaking in English to you here today," said the Finn, who says he dreams in both Finnish and Swedish, the two official languages in Finland.

Some 88 per cent of the content on the EU websites is in English. In 1986, well over half of EU documents (58 percent) were initially drafted in French. Today, 72 percent of EU institution texts are drafted in English, and large parts of EU-information online is never translated into the mother tongue of readers – particularly those speaking minority languages.

Each EU institution is allowed by law to decide upon which languages to use as working languages or "procedural" languages.

In the European Commission, French, German and English are procedural languages, meaning all internal documents as well as EU legislation must be issued in them, while the 20 other EU languages have "official" status, meaning EU legislation appears in these languages.

The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg is, however, entirely run in French, for reasons the head of EU translations claimed he was not aware of.

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