The European Union is arguably the most multilingual institution on the planet: it boasts twenty-four official languages for all its members, and it is obliged to publish legislation in all of them. It is an enormous translation enterprise, both linguistically and logistically, producing over 1.9 million pages a year (figure from 2015) and employing over 2,250 people at the Commission alone. The translation services of the Union, whose entire budget costs a European citizen approximately 2 euro per year, ascertain that every person in the EU has full access to all legislation and parliamentary work.
Usually it is the case that when a state is admitted, the Union also adds its language to the official list, implementing the translation service as soon as the membership is confirmed. However, sometimes there are complications. Within such a gigantic and complex enterprise, with the whooping 552 different combinations of languages that need to be covered (Swedish to Italian, Croatian to Danish, Hungarian to Portugese…), there are sometimes very practical constraints on what translation services of the EU institutions can do. They can be budgetary – for example, there is no point in keeping permanent staff for Esperanto translation if one might suspect that the workload they’d receive would be scarce. They can also depend on the market resources – if there were a sudden demand to translate from Esperanto to Ancient Greek, the directorate-general would struggle to find a team of competent translators. These practical issues need to be weighed against the ideological goal of the Union – that every EU citizen should be able to access EU documents in their own language – and a compromise must be found.
The 2004 enlargement of the Union, the biggest one yet, posed an important challenge for the EU translation services. Eleven new member states brought in nine new languages: Czech, Estonian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Slovak, and Slovene. The translation department has doubled its responsibilities, opening eight different language units to cope with translation. However, there was one language that needed special treatment: Maltese.
The case of Maltese
Malta, a small bilingual country of both English and Maltese, was given its own set of rules. The reasoning behind it is strictly pragmatic: during the preparation for the accession, it was discovered that there simply weren’t enough qualified linguists, translators or interpreters, to keep Maltese as a fully fledged official language from the start. And so it has been decided by the Council that in the case of Maltese, there would be a transitional period of three years from 1 May 2004, during which the institutions were not obliged to draft all acts in Maltese. As it was presumed that the Maltese citizens would be able to read the legislation in English, the temporary solution was satifactory on the ideological level – no one was denied access to documents that concerned them.
And so, despite Maltese being an official language (whose status, as the Council regulation reads, remained unaffected), it did not become a fully integrated language of the Union until three years later. From that point on, the recruitment of translators into Maltese was completed – and all new acts of the institutions were required to be adopted and published in Maltese from 30 April 2007.
According to the Commission’s Directorate-General for Translation, by 2014 there were 59 translators of Maltese nationality employed by DGT, and the translation into Maltese is at 3.83% of the entire output of the service.
The case of Irish
Usually when a country is admitted into the Union, they report a new EU language within the process. However, it was not the case with Irish – one of the two national languages of the Republic of Ireland. When Ireland joined the EU in 1973, English (its other national language) was already reported by Great Britain. Instead of becoming an official language, Irish was granted the status of a treaty language – a language into which the founding treaty of the EU is translated.
The treaty language status offered several possibilities for the use of Irish within the European structures: for instance, there was a possibility to correspond with the EU institutions in written Irish. In addition, the Irish language has also been a possible language of the European Court of Justice since 1973, although one might imagine how tricky an enterprise that would be without the necessary human resources. However, as the lawyer-linguists of the Court recount, the Irish nation has been very kind: for over thirty years there was no appeal to the Court of Justice in Irish. (This is not to say that Ireland did not interact with the Court; when needed, they did so in English.)
As a part of Ireland’s consolidated political effort to popularise the language, on the 1st of January 2007 Irish was made an official working language of the EU, making it the twenty-first official EU language. Irish is the only language that has been reported as the EU’s official language in a different year than the country’s admission date. Moreover, it is the only EU language that is not spoken by a majority of the population in any Member State; in fact, only 17.09% of the population of Ireland speak Irish, and only 2.52% consider it a native language.
In the light of these facts, Irish – similarly to Maltese – is subject to a derogation stating that the institutions of the European Union shall not be bound by the obligation to draft all acts in Irish and to publish them in that language in the Official Journal of the European Union – with the assumption that DG TRAD should work towards acquiring a full ability to provide comprehensive translation service. However, not until 2015 was there an actual plan in place to make Irish fully operational. Annexed to the regulation was the timetable for the reduction of the derogation, which, if fulfilled, and if no Council regulation states otherwise, will make Irish the fully fledged official language of the Union by 2022 – with translation capacities equal to the other official languages.
Is it worth it?
Installing new translation units for languages such as Maltese and Irish, spoken by a relatively small number of people (compared to English, French, or German), begs the question about its purpose. For convenience’s sake, it would surely be easier to normalise the linguistic environment of the Union – particularly in the case of the countries described above, Malta and Ireland, which both have the easily-accessible English as their national language. In addition, the service in itself is difficult to arrange and requires highly specialised personnel that might not be readily available. One may think that needlessly complicating the translation service is counter-productive and expensive.
The criticism referring to the costs can be easily countered when one recalls that the full cost of the translation services of the Commission is 0,60 euro per citizen per year. It is also significant to add that despite increasing workloads, the translation services remained cost-effective: during the period of 2004–13, the number of official EU languages doubled from 11 to 24, but Commission translation costs increased by only 20%. According to certain very rough estimates, the cost of all language services in all EU institutions amounts to less than 1% of the annual general budget of the EU. It is worth mentioning again that, divided by the population of the EU, this comes to around €2 per person per year.
However, the argument can also be given on moral grounds – which remains less practical, but immensely more powerful when it comes to an ideologically driven decision. The first and foremost principle behind the translation services at the Union is the one of equality. Multilingualism ensures that every EU country is wholly represented in the linguistic environment of the Union. For countries such as Malta and Ireland, the introduction of a national language outside English is not only a practical issue, but it is also furthering the country’s agenda in promoting its culture and linguistic richness. Viewed like that, another EU language is not a burden, but an enrichment to a vast plurality of cultural and linguistic immersion, helping the Member States retain and strengthen their national identity whilst simultaneously remaining a part of the bigger whole.
written by Anna Wawrzonkowska
Trainee at TermCoord, DG TRAD at the European Parliament
Italian and Linguistics at the University of Oxford, Oriel College