Lost in translation – the EU’s 24 official languages

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

Can a sole EU official language end the translation chaos?

The EU’s 24 official languages make the legislation and administration in Brussels costly and slow, critics say. English or Esperanto as sole working language could be alternatives, but are feared to handicap non-native speakers.

This is a translation of my contribution for the 2013 Day of Multilingual blogging (see German version of this article).

The European Union’s language services translate EU regulations in all 24 official and working languages. MEPs can present their speeches in the European Parliament in any of these languages with simultaneous translation. Furthermore, citizens from all member states can contact EU institutions and receive an answer in these languages.

The huge amount of time and costs for translation has often been criticised as unproductive and unnecessary. Shada Islam from the think-tank Friends of Europe told PRI: “We’re spending too much time and energy on this language issue.”

There are several alternative suggestions:

  • English as sole official language: This proposal seems to be a practical idea, but critics say that English-speaking nations would be favoured.
  • Several official languages: While this solution is widely considered fairer than English as sole official language, criticism from some EU member states would have to be expected. Moreover, the expenditure for administration and translation would be higher than with a single official language.
  • Esperanto as sole official language: The political movement Europe Democracy Esperanto campaigns for introducing the constructed international language Esperanto as sole EU working language. There are only few Esperanto speakers, with optimistic estimations speaking of two million people worldwide.

The key point of discussion is whether a single official language would infringe the EU motto “united in diversity”, which was created to ensure that the diversity of EU member states is thoroughly represented in the European Union.

Would the introduction of English as “lingua franca” end Europe’s cultural diversity? I am inclined to agree with Shada Islam:

„The world is moving fast, the world is moving ahead and we need to be looking at other ways of fostering diversity and inclusiveness. You do really need to have a common understanding and I think that’s where English came in as the natural language that everyone spoke.”

The EU’s 24 official and working languages are: Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish and Swedish.

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