Often compared to the Tower of Babel, the European Union represents the triumph against the biblical myth of the curse of speaking in different languages as punishment for human pride. A complex administrative framework made up of specialized services and thousands of translators and interpreters has made it possible for community institutions to work and communicate in different languages since their origins.
“Multilingualism is the language of the Union,” states a recent study by the European Parliament, which estimates the cost of putting it into practice at around €1 billion annually (10% of the total administrative cost of the institutions). With each expansion, the challenge – and the price – of this political commitment that aims to reflect the multicultural identity of the project and preserve values such as democracy and transparency.
To come into force, all new legislation must first be translated into the 24 official EU languages. When interpreted, for example during a plenary session of the European Parliament, a meeting of the Committee of Regions or a Council, the figure produces 552 linguistic combinations. The solution to such gibberish comes from the microphones of the interpretation booths, where teams of two or three people achieve the feat of making everyone understand each other.
Each institution has its own language policy. Only three of them – English, French and German – are recognized as working languages in the Commission and the Council, with the former clearly dominating all the others even after Brexit. Parliament, internally, also follows this regime but MEPs have the right to speak in the official EU language of their choice. This policy, added to its vocation to communicate directly with citizens, implies that it translates and interprets a greater volume of information than other institutions. Thus, the chamber has 250 in-house interpreters and regularly employs 1,500 external interpreters (interpreting a plenary session requires between 700 and 900). 70% of the texts they translate are done in-house, with their 600 translators, the rest is outsourced.
The arrival of new language countries and growing legislative activity have triggered needs. The Commission translated 2.5 million in 2022, 28% more than a decade ago. The Council's 509 translators, for their part, translate one million a year. The use of systems based on artificial intelligence is still marginal.
As a result of the administrative agreements signed by Spain since 2005 with all EU institutions (except the European Parliament), interpretation into Catalan, Galician and Basque can be incorporated in certain meetings. Now the Government proposes taking a qualitative leap so that they are on an equal footing with the 24 officers.