Translation Fatigue at the EU

by Translation Guy on April 30, 2013

German President Joachim Gauck

English should be the sole official language of the EU according to German President Joachim Gauck. “One of the main problems we have in building a more integrated European community is the inadequate communication within Europe,” he said in a speech in Berlin last February.

So is this a translation fail for the EU?  It’s not for lack of trying.  Last year, the EU translated 176 million words in 23 different languages. (The addition of Croatian later this year will make it 24.)  The employment of thousands of translators in this massive effort cost about $400 million last year. Translation costs make a tempting target in the Euro search for austerity, but Gauck was talking culture, not cost.

He believes that Europe needs a common language and multilingualism. “I am convinced that, in Europe, both can live side by side,” he said. “The sense of being at home in your mother tongue, with all its poetry, as well as a workable English for all of life’s situations and all age groups.”

Gauck’s proposal to make English the sole official language recognizes the way the language is actually used in Europe. Over 90% of European schoolchildren learn English at some stage of their compulsory education and this figure is rising.  English has become Europe’s second language of choice with two-thirds of the people in the continent able to speak it, according to a Eurostat survey. Three-quarters of all working documents within the EU were originally written in English.

As in all things, there’s a lot of politics at work here. Both France and Germany are concerned over the relative decline in importance of their languages to the union.  Some critics say that Gaulk’s surprising proposal is a bone thrown to the British bulldog to keep the UK from leaving the EU, since UK PM David Cameron has promised a referendum on whether or not to stay.

The English snowball occurring in Europe has obvious benefits in efficiency and ease of communication among speakers. When more people learn one language, it becomes more valuable to users as the number of speakers increase. The problems with the lingua franca are a little more subtle. The lingua franca becomes a gatekeeper language.  So, for example, when a guy from Spain wants to talk to a guy from Sweden, their communication has to pass through the filter of a second language, with all the attendant risks of relay miscommunication.

There is a home-team advantage that comes to those who speak the lingua franca as their native language. They can write more, and write it faster, so that the topics of interest to this European minority come to dominate the continental conversation. Some French diplomats say English would smuggle “Anglo-Saxon” notions about politics and the economy into the heart of European policy-making, which may be just what the Germans are looking for.


  1. Donovan says:

    The EU bettr take all steps necessary to avoid collapse, and if English as a common language works, then go for it.

  2. The topics of conversation to the English don’t dominate European conversation, trust me on that.

  3. The UK will never leave the EU, they may not want the Euro as currency, but they like the lack of trade restrictions.

  4. 24 different languages does seem too many for a government body to work with, Congress only uses English and they can’t seem to do their jobs.

  5. Jeanne says:

    Wait, the Germans are backing English as the common langauge? How ungermanic.

  6. Zannie Liska says:

    Of course the French are flogging Anglo-Saxon conspiracy theories, what would a conversation about thing English be without the French taking pot shots.

    • Ken says:

      So close to England, so far from God.

  7. Sue says:

    I think this is a rather sensible idea, the operartion of the EU is already a massive bureaucratic nightmare, then thro in communication issues.

  8. This is a bone thrown to the UK, as they have been at odds on several issues lately, with EU financial tax issues possibly seeing a court challenge from Cameron and his friends in the City.

  9. It’s never going to happen. The real power behind the EU – France – will never agree to it. Plus as someone who speaks German, lived there for several years and still spends 3 months a year there, neither will the Germans. In my experience there are fewer English speakers in Germany today than there were 25 years ago, certainly in the under 40s group.

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