Commission denies English language favouritism

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The European Commission has tried to respond to grumbling in the French press about the preferential use of English in EU institutions, saying it is doing its best to maintain multilingualism in the face of budget constraints.

Jean Quatremer, a renowned French political journalist from the daily Libération, complained about the official press statements accompanying the Commission’s economic recommendations to member states, published on 30 May.

The statements, eagerly awaited by the press because of the euro debt crisis, were initially only made available to journalists in English, with translations in other languages following hours later in the day.

This, Quatremer said, gave the Anglo-Saxon press an “incredible competitive advantage”, throwing into doubt the institutions’ democratic legitimacy.

“Can you govern a eurozone, which numbers 330 million citizens, in a language which is only spoken by less than five million Irish? … Well, that is what the European Commission claims to do,” Quatremer wrote in a strongly-worded blog post.

Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly said he understood the frustration but urged Quatremer to “accept it” since English had become the most widely spoken language in the EU Executive.

The documents, Bailly argued, were translated within a few hours into the other EU working languages (French and German) and within two days for the remaining 20 official languages.

French crusade

Quatremer is not isolated in his quest for more linguistic balance within the EU institutions.

In the European Parliament many official press statements are published in English only and a limited amount of them are translated in other languages, despite the huge efforts and money invested into translation services.

“This is one of our struggles – that the press releases and all publications and communications with society (tenders, contracts, etc.) are translated,” said Miguel Angel Martinez Martinez, the Parliament’s Vice-President in charge of multilingualism.

Jean-Pierre de Launoit, President of the ‘Alliance Française’, a public association promoting the French language and culture worldwide, said he has long sought to promote linguistic diversity within the European institutions.

“We intervened on several occasions with the European Commission to try to get a better distribution of languages. But it is not easy,” Launoit told a press briefing held on 12 June, during the inauguration of new ‘Alliance Française’ offices in Brussels.

Asked whether his organisation would be ready to assist the Commission’s translation services, Launoit said he was not opposed to the idea.  “It’s a great suggestion and I think we can possibly talk about that” in future ‘Alliance Française’ meetings, Launoit said in response to a question from EURACTIV.

However, it would not be possible for the ‘Alliance Française’ to give financial support to the EU’s translation services, added Thierry Lagnau, who leads the association’s Brussels chapter.

“Our struggle lies in the defence of multilingualism and the use of French whenever possible” in the EU institutions, he said.

Translation: Time and costs

In fact, translation issues in the EU institutions are more related to time than cost.

Dennis Abbott, Commission spokesman for education, culture and multilingualism, argued that the translation delays on May 30th were due to some last-minute changes to the documents, made during a College of Commissioners meeting the same day.

In total 66 documents required translation, representing 10,500 pages or 450 pages per language for the Commission’s translation services. All were translated within the set deadline, Abbott told EURACTIV in emailed comments.

Anticipating the Commission’s response, Quatremer wrote that he did not wish for all documents to be translated immediately into French, but at least the report concerning France.

Abbott, in reply to Quatremer’s piece – written in French – said the Commission could not release intermediary versions of the documents in other languages, saying “it is always preferable to release the same version in all the languages.”

It was inevitable, Abbott said, that this would take some time as the originals need to be finished first.

“As you can see, the issue here is not on the number of translators available or the budget,” Abbott told EURACTIV.

The Commission estimates that translating its more than two million documents yearly costs the European taxpayer 60 cents per person – often referred to as “the cost of democracy”.

“However, as you know, some member states want to reduce the EU budget, but at the same time they want us to translate more documents!,” Abbott remarked.

Perhaps caring little for Quatremer’s Gallic linguistic pride, British journalists made light of the situation.

“The real insult to France is not to tell them to make reforms, but to publish recommendations in English,” a correspondent for the Economist reportedly said on Twitter.

In 2011, English was the source language for 77.04% of all texts submitted to the European Commission's in-house translation services, up from 74.6% in 2009, spokesman Dennis Abbot said.

By comparison, the position of French has continued to erode, representing only 7.13% of source texts, down from 8.32% in 2009.

German, meanwhile, is confined to a marginal role, representing only 2.74% of source texts, despite being the single most spoken language in the EU, with almost a 100 million native speakers.

Press articles:

Official documents:

  • European Commission: Country-specific recommendations 2012-2013 [EN] [FR]
  • European Commission: Directorate-General for Translation [EN] [FR] [DE]
  • European Parliament: Multilinguism in the European Parliament [EN] [FR] [DE]

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