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Brussels, 19 February 2003

Multilingualism in the European Commission: A long-standing tradition and an asset to the European Union

The EU has eleven official languages: Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish. The principle that all the EU's official languages are equal is enshrined in law in the following documents:

  • The Treaty establishing the European Community states that every citizen of the Union may write to the European institutions in one of the official languages and have an answer in the same language;

  • The first ever Regulation adopted by what was then the European Economic Community, in 1958, stipulates that all documents of general application shall be drafted in all the official languages.

The use of the official languages guarantees that every citizen can understand the laws which apply to him or her, be well-informed and take part in public debate, an essential pre-requisite to a transparent and democratic EU. As the body which initiates and carries out the EU's policies, the Commission has a pivotal part to play here. It has set up the structures it needs to carry out these functions:

  • The Commission has a Translation Service (known by its French initials as the SdT) which translates around 1.3 million pages a year. The SDT has a staff of some 1,300 in-house translators, and also sends out more than 20% of its work to freelance translators.

  • Interpreting for the approximately 11,000 meetings held each year by the Commission, the Council, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions is provided by the Joint Interpreting and Conference Service (the SCIC), which employs some 700 interpreters each day.

The cost of operating in the 11 official languages, taking all the Institutions together, is only €2 per EU citizen per year, compared to €5 for a cinema ticket in a big city…

Enlargement: a challenge the Commission can meet

The Commission is gearing up to take in ten new Member States from May 2004, with nine, or possibly ten, new languages. Preparations are also necessary in the longer-term for the languages of Bulgaria and Romania, which are expected to join in 2007. This does not in any way mean that the Commission will move away from the principle of working multilingually. The Commission and the candidate countries are hard at work preparing to meet the new challenge, by training translators and interpreters, developing a special human resources strategy, expanding the language cover provided by the European institutions' websites and, of course, translating and checking the whole corpus of EU law (the so-called "acquis"), which at present runs to about 97,000 pages.

The SdT and the SCIC will be exploiting the possibilities offered by new technology, for example doing further development work on the multilingual terminology glossaries which they use to facilitate research into vocabulary. They will expand the use of "relay" and "two-way" working as a way of covering the increase from 110 possible combinations of languages to 420 after enlargement. Relay involves, for example, translating or interpreting from Portuguese into Finnish or Hungarian by way of French, English, German or any other language known by enough translators or interpreters. Two-way working allows translators to translate non-core documents into languages other than their mother tongue, where this is possible.

Striking a balance between cost and effectiveness

In developing the strategy for an enlarged EU, it is important to strike the best possible balance between cost and effectiveness. The annual cost of the SCIC is currently 100m euros or 0.28 euros per citizen, while the SdT costs 197m euros a year.

The current cost of interpretation for a one-day meeting at the Commission is less than 5,200 euros. After enlargement, this is forecast to rise marginally to around 5,750 euros. The SCIC is intending to employ 40 interpreters per new language per day. Based on existing plans for a 50/50 split between internal and external resources, it is aiming to fill up to 20 posts per new language added, leading to a 40 per cent increase in staff. To guarantee cost-effectiveness, the SCIC will put in place a number of measures to improve coordination across the institutions, thus saving resources. In some cases, participants in meetings will be allowed to speak their own languages, even if they have to listen to foreign languages.

The SdT estimates that in 2006, with ten new languages, translation demand will rise from 1.3 million pages a year to 2.4 million pages. However, it is looking to streamline its activities by avoiding low priority translation requests, and summarising where possible. Procedural documents will be restricted to 20 pages, and efforts will be made to avoid translating intermediate documents. In-house translation will be concentrated on core documents. If planned savings in demand materialise, posts currently allocated to the existing EU languages will be gradually transferred to units handling the accession languages. Taken together, all these elements imply that the SdT expects to employ 110 translators and support staff per new language.

EPSO (the new inter-institutional recruitment office) will launch common inter-institutional competitions for interpreters and translators in 2003, in an unprecedented effort of organising up to 50 competitions, including 18 for linguists from the accession countries.

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