The United Nations has six official languages, the International Olympic Committee has two, but the European Union has no fewer than 23. For most of its history, the EU has treated the languages of all member states as equal.
Every law, directive, and parliamentary session is translated into all 23, while interpreters mean everyone can follow debates in their own language.
The Treaty of Rome first set out the “language parity rule” when there were just 10 languages. As the EU has grown, the rule has not changed. The addition of 10 new countries in May 2004 was expected to increase the translation budget by a massive 35 million euros and almost double the number of interpreters needed.
This is good for supporters of language diversity – and translators, interpreters, and multilingual lawyers! But on the negative side, it’s hugely expensive and time-consuming. Translating each session into 23 languages can take up to four months.
Now things are starting to change. Last week, the European Parliament agreed to cut part of its translation service, in an effort to save €8.6 million per year. Starting from December, the EU legislative will only record proceedings in the original language, but will translate them when requested by a member state.
The decision follows a report by Bulgarian liberal MEP, Stanimir Ilchev. He rejected any idea of having a single official language – and dismissed the thought of only translating sessions into English as “linguistically unjust”. He believes the move would not harm multilingualism, and members will still use interpreters to follow proceedings in their own language.
Many people have welcomed the decision, especially given the difficult economic climate. Eurosceptics have long cited the huge translation budget as an example of the EU’s inefficiency. But others are worried that the move could lead to English starting to take over as a dominant language. The EU has a strong policy on linguistic diversity and protecting minority languages, and this could be seen as a step in the wrong direction.
Other sceptics say that it might backfire, and end up saving minimal amounts, since members could simply request translation into their own language.
Not all European institutions work in the same way. The European Commission uses four working languages, but translates all documents into all 23 official languages. And the European Court of Justice uses French as a working language, but allows plaintiffs to bring cases in the language of their choice.
It will be interesting to see how the decision works in practice, and whether it succeeds in cutting costs and delays. The EU is still a long way from adopting an official language or languages – and we expect the corridors of Brussels will stay as polyglot as ever!