The Latvian EU Presidency hosted the Riga Summit on a Multilingual Digital Single Market (DSM) last week, just before the European Commission launches its much-awaited DSM plan.
The Digital Single Market, due to be presented this Wednesday (6 May), is the European Commission’s new flagship strategy, set to replace the former ‘Digital Agenda’.
At the Riga summit, politicians reaffirmed their support for Europe’s rich language heritage and multilingualism policies.
But the real substance was taking place at expert level, with language researchers, software experts and translation officials getting their heads together to solve the EU’s multilingualism conundrum.
This included discussions on a free EU translation support service, and comparing language approaches of different media.
Speakers in Riga showcased how multilingualism solutions are already being implemented by European industry, media outlets, governments, and service providers.
But several expressed concerns about a monolingual internet, the lack of language interfaces to national content, and the dependency upon a few American applications, such as the often- criticised Google Translate.
Is DSM focusing enough on languages?
The Commission’s Digital Single Market, outlined in March, will include plans to unlock territorial copyright protection for TV, film and music.
This includes tackling ‘geo-blocking’: the fact that media and entertainment rights are often attributed on a country basis, making it illegal and difficult to access such content from outside its licensed country.
Riga speakers advocated fighting just as strongly the analogous ‘language-blocking’, meaning the barrier to valuable information for non-polyglots.
Failing translation efforts, smaller languages are at risk of being replaced by English, warned Rebecca Petras, from the NGO Translators Without Borders.
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head,” Petras said, quoting Nelson Mandela. “If you talk to him in his native language, it goes to his heart.”
Speaking to EURACTIV the Riga Summit’s chief organiser called for tackling languages issues more clearly under the DSM, and for signing a related Open Letter, which was supported by more than 3,600 professionals.
EU efforts are not only about talking up languages, but also about doing something for them.
Marta Nagy-Rothengass, head of the ‘data value chain’ unit at the Commission’s DG CONNECT, is launching the EU automated translation service. CEF.AT (Automated Translation) builds on the existing internal MT@EC (Machine Translation at European Commission). This is about leveraging EU translation tools outside, knowing that human translation cannot cope with growing volume and budget constraints.
Responding to questions from EURACTIV, the Commission official clarified the scope: “This project focuses first on cross-border public services, hoping for a good take-up. If it is a success, then the scope might be extended to the private sector.” Asked about CEF.AT, she stated that no branding is required at this stage.
Joao Rodrigues Frade is in charge of the CEF Project and Architecture Office at DIGIT, the Commission department for IT. He explained that the planned CEF.AT roll-out combines service provision, project funding, and advice to Member State officials, and feedback gathering.
Spyridon Pilos is head of language applications at DGT, the Commission’s translation department. He showed how the Commission’s internal machine translation tools grew from the initial Moses research project. While Moses and the current MT@EC tool handle documents such as European legislation, CEF.AT will also translate websites and generic text, which is technically different.
Jochen Hummel, the Chairman of industry group LT-Innovate, told EURACTIV in an interview that he did not see such EU services as competing with those offered by private companies. But he said he hoped for a future Public Private Partnership, an opportunity to add value on top of a basic public infrastructure.
Despite much enthusiasm in the translation community, some participants did provide critical feedback. Michele Osella, from the Istituto Mario Boella, warned: “Expectations raised by EU-funded projects about multilingual technologies are skyrocketing. However, in the absence of sound underlying business models, their existence is limited to the period financed.”
Private sector and media
The Riga multilingualism summit also attracted a number of media representatives – including from The Economist, The Guardian, Deutsche Welle and EURACTIV – who compared their approaches to languages, countering prejudices about Anglo-Saxon neglect of foreign languages.
Lan Greene from The Economist warned that monolingualism leads to political disenfranchisement, pointing out that English – the assumed lingua franca in Europe – is not understood by most EU citizens. Already during the Middle Ages, Latin-speaking elites were cut off from the populations and their vernacular idioms, he remarked, saying the EU could draw the lessons from past experiences.
At Deutsche Welle, Peggy van der Kreeft handles languages as innovation manager. She said the German broadcaster does not only offer many language channels, like the BBC World Service, it also handles automated translation projects, for example, to help the European Parliament interpret routine exchanges, like voting results.
Christophe Leclercq, the founder of EURACTIV, explained the EURACTIV Network’s 12-language strategy, having pioneered earlier tools such as automated translation combined with human post-editing. To support translators’ work, plus localisation by journalists, the media network uses translation memories, and could upgrade to newer tools. Related strategic media projects were flagged, such as the Innovation4Media proposal, accompanying Europe’s media transformation, building on the prior #Media4EU.
The Riga media panel was moderated by Holly Young of The Guardian, which publishes in English. But Young said that the newspaper does cover a series on “the case for learning languages”.