The Linguist

The Linguist 53,5

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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26 The Linguist OCTOBER/NOVEMBER FEATURES Martyn Bond investigates how the multilingual European Parliament manages its interpreting needs T he European Parliament – newly elected this year – met in Strasbourg for its opening session in early July, and the vital importance of interpretation was obvious from day one. The plenary meeting brought together 751 MEPs from 28 states, speaking 24 official languages. Together with representatives from the European Commission and the governments of each member state, they came to the vast auditorium to elect their President and debate the future of the European Union (EU). To see that it all ran smoothly, 72 interpreters were on hand, covering 252 language combinations – not just the obvious French or German to English, but Lithuanian to Maltese and Hungarian to Finnish. The supply of interpretation is critical, and this was neatly demonstrated when a monolingual British MEP complained loudly that no English interpretation was available. As he explained which button the MEP needed to press to receive the English version, the German President hoped this was the last needless – and hopefully unintentional – delay to the proceedings. When the Plenary session is not under way, there can be as many as 30 meetings scheduled in Parliament. Not for nothing is the word 'parliament' derived from the Old French parler: 'to speak'. Its specialist committees, political groups, inquiries and press conferences all require some interpretation, even if the service is not always as complete as it is in the Plenary. Visiting delegations from non-EU countries and international organisations can add more languages to the tally – most obviously Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Russian. The European Parliament has some interest in all 'third countries' (as non-EU countries are known), and at some stage will require interpreters with passive or active knowledge of their languages. Currently, the service employs more than 1,000 interpreters for one week a month, to cover sessions of Parliament in Strasbourg and more in Brussels. Some meeting rooms have limited space for interpretation booths, while on specialist committees and political groups only some of the EU languages are represented, so combinations may involve ten languages or less. However, web-streaming of these meetings (as well as of the Plenary) reaches an audience that cannot be identified in advance. This may bring additional interpreting costs as part of the price for a growing demand among the wider public for more information about Parliament. Why not set a limit? At a recent meeting of international organisations to discuss their use of interpreting services, the European Parliament was confronted by examples of complex meetings that manage with a smaller number of official languages and hence many fewer language combinations. The UN, for example, functions with just five languages (with a small number of others added in special circumstances) and the Council of Europe, with a membership double that of the EU, manages with just two: English and French. I asked Olga Cosmidou, the Director General for Interpretation and Conferences at the European Parliament, what arguments there were in defence of the more extensive – and more expensive – service offered to MEPs. With something of a smile, she answered: "Now that is where technical issues merge with political issues. There is some evidence that using only French and English, for instance, limits participation by delegates who are not native speakers, and that can raise problems – both alienation from the process of discussion and straightforward misunderstandings. These in turn can cost more time and hence more money to put right later on." She added, a little more cautiously, that a hierarchy of languages emerges in practice in many meetings, with English, French, German and Italian most commonly spoken. A variety of others, such as Slovene, Lithuanian and Maltese, were much less commonly used. But in an elected assembly that exercises legislative powers, it is essential that everyone understands not only the final written text but also the discussions that lead up to it. The current linguistic complexity emerged for political reasons. Initially, the official languages were French, German, Italian and Dutch, with new members adding a language only when it was their major language of communication. But when Malta negotiated entry in 2004, it forced the issue, arguing that the government could not win a referendum Speaking for Europe For some states, the language question is a matter of serious politics; for others, it is an issue to neglect

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