Language barriers in the EU

“You cannot improve things by pretending that everything is OK” - V S Naipaul.

Reading about how the language-cooperation works within a large international organisation such as the EU can be educational, even for those who do not live within the EU. EU stands for the European Union. Since 2004, the EU has 25 member states but only 20 official languages, as some of the members share languages. The cooperation is far-reaching and national sovereignty has been relinquished in several areas. For instance, twelve member states now share a common currency, the Euro (€).

The EU is a partially supra-national organ of co-operation for the European countries Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, The Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, The Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

The official languages of the EU are Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Lettish, Lithuanian, Maltese, Slovak, Slovene, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish. Official material is to be published in all the languages but the day-to-day work is dominated by English and, in decrease, French.

In this document “the EU” denotes the institutions of the EU, that is the European Council, the Council of Ministers, the European Parliament, The European Commission, the European Court of Justice, the Economic and Social Committee, the Regional Committee, the Appeal Court and the European Investment Bank.

Everyone in the European Parliament is entitled to speak in his or her own language and have this interpreted to the other official languages. A statement in Greek must at anytime be possible to be translated or interpreted into Dutch, a Danish one into Italian or a German statement into Portuguese, etc.

380 Interpreters

Eleven official languages mean that a meeting requires 380 interpreters. One of the Swedish interpreters said in an interview in the Swedish newspaper Sydsvenska Dagbladet that translating in the EU Parliament is so difficult that 20 years of work experience is required. She also said that working as a interpreter is so exhausting that it cannot be done for more that half an hour at a time. Therefore, three interpreters work on a rotational schedule.

This translation service works less well for the “small languages” than for English, French and German because of a lack of competent interpreters. Thanks to this, Greek for instance is often translated to Danish from the English translation, which increases the risk for mistranslation.

A few Swedish EU politicians have made statements about the language difficulties within the EU, in the large Swedish newspaper Sydsvenska Dagbladet. They said that the Swedish interpreter’s box is often empty at the meetings of the EU parliament in Strasbourg or at the committee meetings in Brussels. “It is damn annoying to not understand what is being said” said one Member of the EU parliament and continued that, “if there is a Danish interpreter I try to listen to him or her. Otherwise I focus on the English one. But if you don’t speak the language perfectly you lose the nuances… Many people have complained over our pressing the wrong buttons when voting. But that’s hardly surprising when we don’t know what we’re voting for.”

Interpreters are not always at hand

International understanding is built on communication, which is facilitated by speaking the same language. Do we want our politicians to continue negotiations in a language that they do not fully master, something they do not fully dare to admit? Those with English as their mother tongue usually have the benefit of having negotiations held in their first language. EU politicians cannot always count on interpreters being there when they need them. As a Swedish member of the EU parliament put it, “Due to weak language skills, we often have to say what we are able to say in English, rather than what we actually want to say.”

Most of the EU politicians daily use a language other than their own, with the adjoining risk of mistranslations that this brings.

Many participants in simultaneously interpreted meeting have said that using headphones and listening to a voice other than that of the speaker is very tiring. For an English speaker, it is very tiring to listen to and try to understand people who speak the language poorly for a prolonged period of time.

May 1st, 2004, the EU had 455 million Inhabitants

50 million out of the 455 million people within the EU have another mother tongue than the 20 official languages. Examples of such languages are Frisian, Russian, Catalan, Basque, Welsh, Scots, Irish, Gaelic and Lappish. See


The British European minister Peter Hain called the English spoken in the EU “Eurobabble” and claimed to want to put an end to this.

When will the majority of our politicians understand that the EU cannot work optimally with a multiplicity of working languages? It is up to You, dear reader, to do something about this and to do so NOW.

Today, 71% of the original documents in the EU are written in English and 29% in French. In ten years time, everything will probably be written in English. Three years ago, 52% was written in English and 48% in French. Those with English as their first language thus have an enormous linguistic advantage. Unfortunately, the language question is well on its way towards destroying the whole concept of the EU through a return to an old-fashioned political elitism.

Dining Rooms and Cafés

The EU system with twenty official languages depends on that all discussions are to be held in special rooms equipped for simultaneous interpretation, and that interpreters and technicians are on call when one wants to speak with someone from a different country. Even someone with English as his or her first language has limitations in his interactions, since far from all of the delegates speak English. Personal contact is lost when speaking through an interpreter. You can hold speeches through an interpreter, but not hold a personal conversation. Representatives from different countries must be able to speak and discuss in more unofficial circumstances such as in dining rooms or cafés.

Relay language

Relay languages are used frequently in the EU. This means that in translating from for example Portuguese to Finnish, the Finnish interpreter listens to the English translation, and delivers an interpretation on that basis. There are hardly any interpreters available for a number of language combinations (such as Portuguese-Greek or Danish-Portuguese), which is why so called relay languages are necessary.

Naturally, this is a disadvantage for the representatives from smaller countries, for instance Finland and Denmark. There is always a risk that their message is lost along the way. It is a well-known fact that simultaneous interpretation always results in a slight distortion of what is said. This distortion is increased when relay languages are used.

Large information losses

Losses of information can be very great when simultaneous interpretation is done via a relay language. An information loss of 10% and a distortion of 2-3% of the material is considered normal when simultaneous interpretation is done directly, without a relay language. The reason for this is simply that simultaneous interpretation is so difficult that it is inevitable that mistakes are made. It is not enough that the interpreter is fluent in both languages and possesses a quick mind; he or she also has to grasp the specialist terminology used in both languages. This is to be maintained in what is an increasingly complex world. How can any sensible person defend such a system? 50% of the information at scientific meetings is lost in relay-translation, according to a study made by the UN of the language services used at all the organisations tied to the UN.

Several observations at congresses show that those whose first language is that in which the congress is being held speak more frequently than those with a different first language do. A fair solution to this should be that either everyone or no-one is allowed to use his or her mother tongue. Both alternatives stumble on the lack of interpreters, especially ones with specialist knowledge. The only solution is that EU and the UN introduce an international language, such as Esperanto, as their working language. If they do so, the rest of the world will follow.

Mistakes Happen

The first version of the Maastricht Treaty, a 253 page document of enormous importance for the EU had to be retrieved from libraries and vendors as the meaning of the text showed large variation in the different translations. Therefore, it was necessary to make completely new translations, which of course meant a reprinting of the whole document.

Pilotless Airplanes

What must the translations of regular documents look like, given that something as important and carefully translated as the Maastricht Treaty was found to contain numerous incorrect translations? What might be the consequences of such mistakes? A British EU-document contained the words “airplanes flying by automatic pilot over nuclear power plants.” The French translation read “les avions sans pilote qui prennent pour cibles les centrales nucléaires” (approx.; pilotless airplanes whose targets are on nuclear power plants).

Translation takes time

Something that is frequently forgotten in the debate is that translation is time-consuming. Despite having a much larger staff of translators than does the EU, the UN states that a non-urgent text takes 24 days before it is available in all the six official languages, whilst an urgent text is available within six days. The EU gives translation times ranging from one hour to four weeks.

The French EU minister Alain Lamassoure suggested in 1994 that the EU should reduce its working languages to five, as a proposed solution to the increasing language problems in the union. However, his suggestion was met with strong protests from a number of member countries.

© Hans Malv, 2004