Interpreters increasingly insignificant in EU

Some say bonjour, others say szia, goddag or hello. With 23 official languages in the EU few, if anyone, is able to speak them all. That is why the union employs interpreters. Without many slips of the tongue, they have helped politicians understand each other since the early days of the union. But as countries within the EU get more and more anglicised the interpreters’ might be unnecessary.


The interpreter Katalin Fedineczne Vittay has been working for EU since the mid 90’s


Written by Elin Larsson

“I am from Hungary and many of the politicians from my country seem to think that they are good in languages. But it is different speaking about an important topic in English and to talk to someone in the corridor. When people are not good enough in languages they end up saying what they can instead of what they mean”, says Katalin Fedineczne Vittay, interpreter and head of the Hungarian language unit at the EU Commission.

She is sitting in one of the glass booths surrounding the pressroom in the EU Commission. Today’s press conference about the EU-budget is important for citizens all over the union, which is reflected by the never-ending stream of questions from journalists worldwide. The debate shifts between, French, Italian, English, Greek and German. Many of the journalists wear headphones to be able to hear the interpreted conversations in their own languages.

There is a fast and constant stream of words coming from Katalin Fedineczne Vittay ‘s mouth. After three questions in French, a question is asked in German and she can finally take a breath and for a brief moment take off her headset.

“It is tiring to stay focused all the time. As an interpreter you do not only translate words, you have to provide the meaning of what is said”, she says.

A decline in the use of interpreters

By using the headphones politicians could hear interpreted versions of conversations.

The EU has decided that within the union all languages are equal, but in fact English is the lingua franca. Still interpreters exist at all EU levels, participating in gatherings ranging from speeches to business lunches and top-meetings. There are about 1000 staff interpreters and 3000 freelancers within the union. They work mainly behind the scenes, but Katalin Fedineczne Vittay explains the importance of her profession.

“EU without interpreters would not be preferred. People with English as their mother tongue would get an advantage over others and politicians might agree to something they don’t understand. Imagine an intervention based on a misunderstanding in EU. It is easier to change the bible than a piece of legislation approved here, it could be a disaster.”

Yet there is a declining in the use of interpreters in some of the member states. In most of the countries there is no obligation using interpreters, therefore the number of used interpreting hours differs. Ireland has none, since the Irish decided to depend solely on English. And for Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Denmark today’s already few interpreters might be even fewer in the future. Ian Andersen, External Communications Adviser at the Directorate-General for interpretation in the EC, is worried about the progress.

“There is a dropped demand for Swedish and Danish interpreters today, and in Denmark they do not educate any new interpreters at all. There is always a risk when people get overconfident in their ability of speaking another language. If the country removes all its interpreters, what will happen if someone cannot use English for example? Then you might have a problem.”

Amelia Andersdotter is a Swedish MEP for the Pirate Party and she is concerned about the unwillingness among her colleagues of using their own native languages.

“It is a problem that many of my Swedish colleagues are having difficulties expressing themselves in English but still avoid using interpreters. And many MEP’s from other countries have heavy accents and bad vocabularies which makes it hard to understand them and it often happens that people are talking at cross-purposes when we negotiate”, she says.

Cost 250 million

The use of interpreters cost approximately 250 million euro annually. The high expenses of the system was criticised in a report from MEP Stubb 2005. The Commission provides each country with a sum of 2 million for interpreting services. In case that all the money is not spent for interpreting purposes, the rest can be used for civil servants’ travel costs. According to Ian Andersen this could be a contributing reason to the decline.

Despite the cost and the fact that more and more conversations are held in English makes Katalin Fedineczne Vittay doubtful about the future role of the interpreters in the EU. Still she hopes that the EU will keep its multilingual system.

“Each language in the EU is an asset. The whole Europe looks better with different language colours. The languages are a part of the diversity. I hope my younger colleagues encourage Hungarian to be spoken here in EU, not only English.”