Europe of languages or what happens when interpreters switch off their mikes

Even though the hot topic of these days, especially in Slovenia where we are not used to those that look different form our common Slovenian, is the refugee crisis (which Grega described last week), I decided to serve you a bit of a lighter topic this week from the side of EU360. A topic coloured with languages as tomorrow is the European day of languages which marks our multilingualism and linguistic richness. While it is general knowledge that the EU has 24 official languages and a number of working languages, I am going to give you a peek into what happens in Brussels, when interpreters switch off their mikes.


Brussels is probably one of few cities in the world where one can hear such an array of different languages in a very short time, just crossing the street or having a coffee in one of the places in the EU quarter. Some might say that it is even difficult to realise which are the official languages of Belgium just by shopping or enjoying the atmosphere on the Sunday market there as big majority of conversations are done in English or even Italian and Greek. Slovenian and Croatian can also be heard, in particular around the Place Jourdan, as well as Spanish, German and some of the lesser known Baltic languages.

The EU considers all languages that are official languages of its Member States also as EU official languages. This adds up to 24 even though the total number of Member States is 28 but some of them do speak the same language (e.g. German is spoken in Germany, as well as Austria and Belgium). As languages do represent a key part of some Member States’ national identities (including Slovenia’s) it is extremely important for a big number of citizens that their language is properly used also a the EU level.

The EU institutions thereby established clear rules for multilingualism. For example, each Member State in the Council of Ministers must have the possibility to speak in their own language at official meetings, a citizen can write to the European Commission in his/her own language and should receive the Commission’s reply in the same language, and also in the European Parliament, interpreters are always there at official meetings to simultaneously translate the debates in Committees and at the Plenary. Finally, all official legal texts are also translated into all of the EU official languages. This makes the European Commission one of the biggest translation machines in the world with 1750 linguists and 600 support staff, additional 600 interpreters and 3000 free lance interpreters. The European Commission claims that in 2014, 2.3 million pages were translated whereas its own translators made 71% of them and where one page consisted of 1500 typed characters, excluding spaces. The Commission estimates that translation costs amount yearly to around 330 million Euros or 60 cents per EU citizen. It further clarifies that with the big enlargement in 2004 when the number of official languages doubled, the costs rose only be 20% and that all language services of all EU institutions do not exceed 1% of the yearly EU budget. In addition to translators and interpreters, a curious job is also that of the lawyers linguists who make sure that translations are also legally correct.

When it comes to official meetings, the rules are clear. But Brussels and EU legislation is a result of constant negotiations and compromise, which stems from much more than just official talks. A big part of the work is done outside the offices and meeting rooms, in unofficial settings or at the Mickey Mouse Café at the European Parliament, and sometimes after the interpreters switch off their mikes and leave home for the day.

Even though the European Commission uses French, German, even Italian and Spanish in addition to English as its working languages, and in spite of clear instructions that French Member of the European Parliament receive from their Embassy in Brussels regarding the insistence on the use of French language, most of unofficial talks in Brussels take place in English. It is true that you could find a Frenchman, a Belge and a Spaniard having a discussion in French, but with the big enlargement in 2004 many new employees joined institutions, new MEPs were elected and new representatives sat at the table whose first foreign language is not the one having been for a long time in the past used as language of diplomacy but rather the one that conquered the USA. This is why Brussels corridors are filled with chatter in English with French, Spanish, Italian and also Polish, Slovenian and Hungarian accents. It could be said that the French language kept a bit of a bigger role only in the Council, where ambassadors and attaches are expected to master both English and French.

Based on my experience from the European parliament I therefore think that the new European Esperanto is really the European English language, where many people drop the fear and need for complete grammatical correctness and each nationality gives this common English its own special spice in terms of pronunciation, forming of phrases and using foreign words. In order for the MEPs, their assistants, advisors and administrators to actively participate in negotiating important legislative texts, that are later adopted at the Plenary session, they have to master terminology in English and know the language so well to detect nuances which are many times key for successful conclusion of negotiations.

So, yes, this is what happens when interpreters (who by the way have one of the most regulated jobs in Brussels with strict limitations for time of work) at a meeting of Coordinators of a Parliamentary Committee at 19:15 switch off their mikes and when the Italian lady who is presiding the meeting calmly switches to French and informs the others that yes, we will continue the meeting as long as we don’t find a solution and please do feel free to speak English and she’ll reply in French, we will manage…

Avtor: Špela Majcen Marušič

I am a Slovenian EU affairs analyst, proud member of the Charles Darwin promotion at the College of Europe with experience in the European Parliament and the UN Refugee Agency. I am a young mum to a clever and adorable baby girl and I believe that a kinder world can be created through cooperation and understanding. On Twitter as @SpelaMa on Instagram as @spela_ma.

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