Multilingualism and the right to translation and interpreting in the EU, challenges for the future


The multilingual nature of the European Union is one of its defining characteristics, but what are the real linguistic rights of EU citizens when it comes to understand and to be understood in another Member State? How are translation and interpreting regulated at EU level?

Multilingualism and right to translation interpreting EU

The European Union is one of the most representative examples of multilingualism in the world. Since the passing of the EEC Council Regulation (EC) No 1/1958, which established Dutch, French, German and Italian as the languages to be used by the European Economic Community, many languages have been added as the EU grew. Currently there are 24 official languages in the EU (i.e. Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish and Swedish), making it the only international organisation with one official language per Member State.

Several legislative instruments serve as the backbone of EU multilingualism, clearly stating the value of languages as part of the Community acquis and the cultural heritage of the societies under the Union, but also acknowledging the importance of multilingualism as a tool to guarantee citizens’ rights. One of the most important instruments is the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which foresees non-discrimination on the basis of language (Article 21), linguistic diversity (Article 22) and citizens’ right to communicate with the institutions in any official language (Article 41(4)). However, these instruments together with the Treaties, the rules of procedure of the different institutions and other documents similar in nature, limit their scope to the functioning of EU bureaucracy. What happens then when it comes to EU citizens’ lives? How does this multilingualism principle reflect on cross-border relationships?

The mobility of workers and tourists through the Schengen area, the exponential increase of students participating in Comenius, Erasmus and other student mobility programmes together with the increase of cross-border cooperation at different levels has evidenced the need for language policy that protects and makes effective the rights of EU citizens and enforces the existing legislation. However, when it comes to the practical level, language is often no longer conceived as a right but rather as a barrier that is difficult to overcome, especially in public services.

And it is in this context that other EU instruments become relevant to make it possible for EU citizens to exercise their rights in the different spheres of public services. It is the case, for example, of Directive 2010/64/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 October 2010 on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings. This Directive, which refers to the rights of persons suspected or accused of having committed a criminal offence, is the first Directive explicitly regulating the right to translation and interpreting and mentioning the need to ensure the quality and independence of such translation and interpreting services. Other more recent Directives, such as:

also refer directly or indirectly to the linguistic rights of citizens, made effective through the access to quality translation and interpreting as foreseen in Directive 2010/64/EU.

Despite this growing legal framework that attempts to scaffold linguistic rights in the Union, challenges for the future are still great since Directives, yet binding, need to be transposed to Member States’ legislation in an effective manner to ensure full compliance. Another big issue is making the right to translation and interpreting visible and real not only in legal and police settings, but also in other crucial scenarios such as health and social settings. Additionally, the importance of allocating the necessary funding in public administrations’ budgets is crucial to ensure that there are sufficient means to enforce what is foreseen in the legislation, something that has become increasingly challenging in the last decade.

We invite you to learn more about the role of languages in the EU by exploring the sources of this post!

Written by Doris Fernandes del Pozo – Journalist, Translator-Interpreter and Communication Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament. She is pursuing a PhD as part of the Communication and Contemporary Information Programme of the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain).


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