Brussels, 27 April 2006
The European Union has now worked for two years with 25 Member States and 20 official languages. The scale of its multilingual regime makes it unique in the world, and to some the extra work it creates for its institutions may seem, at first sight, to outweigh the advantages. But there are special reasons for it. The Union passes laws directly binding on its citizens and companies, and as a matter of simple natural justice they and their courts must have a version of the laws they have to comply with or enforce in a language they can understand. Everyone in the Union is also entitled and encouraged to play a part in building it, and must be able to do it in their own language. Incorporating nine new official languages – Czech, Estonian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Slovak and Slovene – into the system at one go in May 2004 was an unprecedented event for the Commission, and its language services have had to adopt some innovative approaches to solving the resulting challenges. Now that we are well under way, the time is ripe for a review of the situation so far.
One way of looking at the EU Institutions is to see them as hosting the most intense, ongoing political and technical conference in the world. The Directorate General for Interpretation (often known by its well-established acronym SCIC) provides quality interpretation in meetings arranged by the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions, the European Investment Bank and other bodies and agencies of the European Union located in the Member States. DG Interpretation also provides a conference organising capacity to the Commission services. The European Parliament and the Court of Justice of the European Communities each have their own, separate interpreting service.
DG Interpretation provides interpreters for 50-60 meetings each day in Brussels and elsewhere. Each working day, 700-800 interpreters are ready to help the delegations of the Member States and other countries understand each other.
The language arrangements for these meetings vary considerably – from consecutive interpretation between two languages, for which only one interpreter may be required, to simultaneous interpretation into and out of 20 or more languages, which requires at least 60 interpreters.
DG Interpretation employs 500 staff interpreters as well as a large number of freelances on contract out of a total pool of more than 2700 freelance interpreters world-wide who have been accredited to work for the three EU interpretation services.
How many interpreters do we need?
The projections of the European Institutions in advance of the 2004-enlargement showed a need for, on average, 80 interpreters per new language per day for all institutions once the new languages are fully integrated – practically all to be trained by the future Member States. DG Interpretation would require about half of these while working to maintain an overall 50/50 hiring split between staff and freelance interpreters.
Starting from May 2004, DG Interpretation has shown that it is able to provide three full (20-20) teams of interpretation per day. There are five meeting rooms available for meetings served by DG Interpretation with the requisite number of booths to allow for full language coverage. Following enlargement, the Council of the Union has introduced graded interpretation priorities. Meetings at ministerial level as well as selected working groups have full coverage, while other groups have variable coverage, depending on requests by the Member States.
The plenary meetings of the Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee continue to work with full coverage. Commission working groups and committees work – as has been the practice for the past 20 years – with interpreter teams that cover the actual need for interpretation. The college of Commissioners continues to work with interpretation in three languages (EN, FR, DE).
What is the situation as regards new languages?
The table below sets out all new language staff interpreters available to DG Interpretation and the total pool of accredited freelance interpreters available to all three EU interpreting services. At present, the most represented new language in Interpretation is Polish with a total of 110 interpreters, taking staff, temps and freelances together. For the other new languages, with the exception of Maltese (see below), between 47 and 86 interpreters are available per language. The Commission was better prepared in terms of number of interpreters available on the day of enlargement in 2004, than for any of the previous enlargements, even if for many languages there is still a serious effort to be made in each Member State to bring up the numbers of highly qualified conference interpreters to a comfortable level. Clearly, enlargement is a process, not an event.
Overall view of new language interpreters available to DG Interpretation (April 2006) (permanent and temporary staff, and freelance)
In actual fact, demand has turned out to be differentiated between languages. For the 15 “old” Member States practically 100% of the demands for delegates to be able to speak and listen (active) and speak only (passive) in their own language can be satisfied in the framework of the Council of Ministers, the Institution which uses the greatest number of new languages. For the “new” Member State languages, DG Interpretation is running at about 80%. For some new languages (Czech, Estonian, Hungarian, Polish and Slovenian) DG Interpretation is already able to satisfy more than 90% of the demand, while for other new languages requests are filled from 53% (Latvian) to 74% (Slovak). Efforts are on-going to improve these figures for all languages, but require time and the commitment of the Member States to keep up training efforts. The institutions provide support for this training.
Satisfaction of demand in % for interpretation into new Member States languages at the Council of the Union - January-March 2006.
* Including Maltese
Maltese poses a particular challenge in this respect since the competition for Maltese interpreters in November 2003 yielded no successful candidates and the number of freelance interpreters available is very limited. DG Interpretation is in contact with the Maltese authorities on an ongoing basis in order to help remedy this situation. A training course in London 2004-05 yielded a further 5 interpreters and a post-graduate interpreter training course is now up and running at the University of Malta, which means that today we are able to satisfy 14-22% of the requests for Maltese.
What are the arrangements for Irish and Spanish Regional languages ?
Following a decision by the Member States in Council on 13 June 2005, Irish will become an official language of the Union starting from 1 January 2007. In order to meet likely demand for this language, DG Interpretation is undertaking measures in co-operation with the Irish authorities and other institutions.
Separately – and in a different legal context from Irish – Council adopted a set of Conclusions on the official use of additional languages within the Council and possibly other Institutions and bodies of the European Union. Spanish Regional Languages (Basque, Galician and the language of Catalonia, the Balearics and Valencia) are the first examples of languages that are official in a region of a Member State that can be used to a certain extent in EU meetings.
DG Interpretation is able to provide interpretation in a limited number of meetings, upon the request of the Spanish authorities, when a regional representative of Spain is known to wish to address the meeting in one of these languages. The extra interpreting costs this entails are borne by the government of Spain, which has also set up a body responsible for translating documents into the three languages (see MEMO/06/173).
How do we find the interpreters we need?
Numerous awareness-raising actions have taken place in the new Member States and Candidate Countries. DG Interpretation assists their universities and interpretation courses in many ways: with curriculum advice during the planning stage, and, once the course is in place, with subsidies, bursaries for students, training for trainers, teaching assistance, and teaching materials. A postgraduate–type programme is considered to be the most appropriate way to train high-quality conference interpreters. The benchmark is the European Masters in Conference Interpreting (EMCI: www.emcinterpreting.net).
DG Interpretation has been building up in-house capacity in the new languages
since 1998. All new Member States and Accession Countries now have postgraduate
programmes, often as a direct result of DG Interpretation’s endeavours.
These preparations will continue well beyond 2007, the next horizon for
A first series of inter-institutional open competitions for interpreters was finalised in the last quarter of 2004 and each of the three interpreting services has been allotted a number of the successful candidates. A second series for senior interpreters is taking place this year.
DG Interpretation recruited 48 permanent staff interpreters in 2004-2005, rather fewer than expected, and is recruiting additional interpreters on temporary contracts in 2006 to help make up the shortfall.
Apart from carrying out extensive information activities and contributing to training, DG Interpretation has held annual Institution-wide accreditation tests for freelance interpreters in practically all the new Member States for the past six years.
The quality of interpretation is checked by monitoring the performance of the interpreters on a regular basis. Each Head of Interpretation Unit organises monitoring of staff (in connection with the annual Career Development Review) and freelance interpreters. Furthermore, the head of the interpretation team for each individual meeting files a report that takes in quality as well as technical and organisational issues. For Commission meetings, DG Interpretation has a running survey of customer satisfaction, which also touches on the quality of interpretation.
DG Interpretation is making a long-term investment in training, the results of which will come on-stream only gradually. 5 members of staff have added a new Member State language at the end of 2005. Currently, 58 interpreters from EU-15 Member States (43 staff and 15 freelance) are following courses in the languages of the 10 “new” Member States + Bulgarian, Romanian and Turkish. At least 6 participants in the training courses will add a language in 2006, and a further 12 are expected to add the language in 2007.
DG Interpretation has been engaged in training interpreter trainers from Bulgaria and Romania since the early 1990s. Since 2002, more structured assistance has been offered to the universities of the two Acceding Countries as outlined above. In March 2005, Commissioner Ján Figel’ visited these two countries and held talks with their authorities and universities, which led to a consolidation of training activities in each country. DG Interpretation recruited its first four temporary staff interpreters for Bulgarian and Romanian in spring 2006.
In November 2004, DG Interpretation started cooperation with Croatia, which led, in October 2005, to Croatia’s first full-time postgraduate training course in conference interpreting at the University of Zagreb.
The total annual cost of DG Interpretation in 2005, spread over the budgets of the institutions and bodies for which it provides interpreters, was € 100 million, or € 0.21 per citizen per year of the enlarged Union. The separate interpreting services of the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice, in the Commission’s best estimate, cost approximately € 76 million in 2005.
In other words, the total cost of interpretation in the European Union was equivalent to € 0,38 per citizen in 2005 and may reach, in 2007-2010, € 0,50 per citizen per year (238 million euro), provided a sufficient number of interpreters can be recruited.
For more information:
 DG Interpretation was known until 2003 as Service Commun Interprétation-Conférences –Joint Interpreting and Conference Service.
 Demand for interpretation for particular languages in the Council of Ministers vary, depending on the request for interpretation by Member States. A relatively high level of demand requires a higher number of interpreters and the other way around.