EU concerned over lack of French interpreters

The EU institutions have launched a campaign ahead of this weekend’s European Languages Day aimed at encouraging young French speakers to consider a career in interpreting, as the European Commission moves to address the “serious shortage” of French interpreters it expects to hit its services in the next five to 10 years.

The YouTube website began broadcasting a video clip on Wednesday (23 September) aimed at raising awareness of the interpreting profession among young people in France, Belgium and Luxembourg. 

The clip, entitled ‘Interpreting for Europe – in French‘, can also be accessed via the websites of the European institutions. 

It was prepared by the EU executive’s interpretation service in conjunction with the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice. 

Faced with inauguration of a new Council building in 2013 and the imminent construction of a larger Commission conference centre in Brussels, the EU executive estimates it will need to recruit 200 native French-speaking conference interpreters over the next ten years. 

Without a major increase in the number of qualified interpreters emerging from higher education in the coming years, the Commission estimates that “the EU institutions will lose almost half of their French-speaking interpreters within the next decade due to upcoming retirements”. 

“French-speaking delegates are at risk of not being able to participate in the EU decision-making process on an equal footing,” the EU executive warns. 

Other languages at risk too 

Moreover, it expects to experience similarly acute shortages of qualified English, German, Italian and Dutch speakers over the same time period. 

At present, the EU institutions draw upon the services of 335 French interpreters, 132 of whom work regularly for DG Interpretation. Of these, 59 are permanent employees. The Commission estimates it will need to recruit 2-3 permanent interpreters each year between now and 2020 to satisfy its requirements, but only 11 have been taken on in the last ten years. 

75% of all EU meetings are interpreted into French, including almost all of those held in the Council, the Parliament and the Court of Justice. 

The majority of the EU executive’s francophone linguists were appointed between the mid-1970s and mid-80s, the Commission explains. Interpreters appointed during this recruitment wave are now approaching retirement but have not been replaced at the same rate in the intervening years. 

Indeed, the EU institutions’ requirements are so stringent that only 30% of those applying are successful, helping to fuel the present crisis. 

The French campaign follows a similar initiative launched in February targeted at English speakers, aimed at “making English a less rare language” amid fears that the EU institutions will likely face an acute shortage of English interpreters by 2015 (EURACTIV 18/02/09). 

EU interpreters themselves are encouraged to learn other languages on the job, helping the institutions to cover the vast number of combinations required to provide efficient interpretation during meetings and conferences. 

Indeed, the present 23 official languages constitute 506 translation and interpreting combinations, a figure which would increase significantly if Croatia, Iceland, Serbia and Turkey join the bloc. 

The EU executive is concerned that when these multilingual interpreters retire, they are not being replaced by enough new recruits proficient in “pivotal languages” like English, French, German, Italian and Dutch. 

The Commission is also concerned that other major international organisations overseas, like the New York branch of the United Nations, are increasingly looking to Europe to fulfil their interpreting needs. 

Later this year, the EU executive will launch a similar awareness-raising campaign targeted at German speakers, with similar initiatives aimed at Swedish, Italian and Dutch speakers to follow in 2010. 

Meanwhile, language-related events are taking place across Europe this week ahead of European Languages Day on 26 September. 

26 September was designated European Day of Languages by the Council of Europe and the European Commission after the Year of Languages in 2001. 

It celebrates "the cultural heritage that forms an integral part of the languages of Europe" and aims to "alert the public to the importance of language learning and diversifying the range of languages learnt" to "increase intercultural understanding". 

To mark this year's European Languages Day, a number of events have taken place throughout the week, including a meeting of the EU's Business Platform for Multilingualism in Brussels (22 September), a Luxembourg conference on how technology can help translators (24 September), and a Brussels conference on Early Language Learning hosted by Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban. 

Activities aimed at encouraging children to learn languages will take place on Place Jourdan today (25 September), in the presence of the commissioner. 

The EU executive's representations in member states are also organising language-related events today. 

The EU institutions spend around €1bn on translation and interpreting every year, representing about 1% of the EU budget or €2.50 per citizen. 

72% of EU documents are originally drafted in English, 12% in French and just 3% in German, while 88% of the users of the Commission's Europa website speak English, according to figures from the EU executive. 

  • 25 Sept.: Language-related events taking place throughout Europe. 
  • 26 Sept.: European Day of Languages. 
  • Later this year: Commission to launch video clip aimed at German speakers. 
  • 2010: Similar initiatives to follow for speakers of Swedish, Italian and Dutch. 

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