The story goes that after the destruction of the Tower of Babel, mankind was confounded by having to speak a multitude of languages and then, any attempt at unified objectives would come to naught. It sees, however, that some 2,000 years later, The European Union is spawning a whole industry in translation services in order to keep up with the languages used in the decision making process.
With some 20 officially recognized sovereign languages, the EU's inclusive philosophy renders the task of running the European Parliament a truly formidable one. The problem is highlighted by two interesting facts; firstly, only around 40% of Europeans are multilingual and secondly, 20 languages yield a total of around 190 possible language combinations (eg German-French, Czech-Greek, Danish-Dutch etc).
The implications of these figures are truly astounding. To run a single session of the European Parliament requires a minimum of three interpreters per translation booth; This means that each session requires at least 60 interpreters to be able to function at all.
Even before new countries accede to the EU, as was the case recently with the ascension of Romania and Bulgaria, the corpus of existing EU law, the acquis communautaire, consisting of some 90,000 pages. Despite the responsibility for this rests with sovereign governments, this still leads to an EU led recruitment of translators within the sovereign countries. Additionally, once the translations are complete, the EU will be responsible for finalizing and publishing them, and for translating translators of these languages for permanent roles within the European Parliament.
The body responsible for fulfilling the EU's needs for translation and linguistic advice is the Director General for Translation (DGT). The DGT has a permanent staff of 2,200 linguists who are stationed in Brussels and Luxembourg. The DGT is organized along language lines with a separate department for each official language. Each department is further divided up into units which specialize in EU policy areas, such as agriculture, energy and employment – each unit has a minimum of 20 translators.
The current number of full-time EU translators and interpreters is really staggering, as the cost estimated at some EUR 800 million in 2006, with the trend only looking to increase. For an idea of the possible magnitude of future recruitment, let us look at the figures for the last expansion. This expansion led to the recruitment of 473 additional time translators, additionally the DGT recruited 7 'seconded national experts' from the ascension countries and a total of 27 support staff (although 99 more are still to be engaged). On top of this the DGT also outsources work to freelance translators and translation agencies in the UK and across Europe.
Any new countries wishing to join the EU will precipitate a similar wave of recruitment of linguists and support staff. With this huge recruitment of translators, along with the maintenance of current staffing a necessity for the EU to even function, the EU's tower of Babel is looking decidedly creaky!