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Translation Fatigue at the EU
April 30, 2013 - By: - In: Translation - Comments Off on Translation Fatigue at the EU

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.

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