Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Language Log and the EU's languages

The Language Log does a great job taking the likes of the BBC to task for their lazy and ill-informed reporting on language-related matters. It is disappointing, therefore, to find Language Log itself displaying the same lackadaisical approach to fact-finding and checking in a post entitled Happy New Year unless you're an EU bureaucrat.

For one thing, it repeats, without citing a source, the canard about the EU having three working languages only - the subject of the previous post here:
Now for the quiz answer: here is the full list of 23 official languages of the EU as of today (notice that of these, only English, French, and German have the status of working languages).

- even though a Wikipedia article that it links to correctly states the true position:

All languages of the EU are also working languages
LL also calculates, without for some reason attempting to find out what the actual situation is, that it takes 506 (or alternatively 256) interpreters to handle the full complement of languages. The true figure is in fact about 70. This sizeable discrepancy between LL's conjecture and the empirical reality can be explained by two factors not taken into account by LL:

1. Conference interpreters work out of not one but several languages each. Senior staff interpreters at EU institutions typically have 4 to 6 passive languages in their combinations.

2. The use of relay, especially for the less frequently used languages (e.g. Maltese interpreted direct into English and from there into the other languages).

(Much the same applies to translation).

LL concludes from its speculations:
By any of these measures, it is clear that the EU needs a massively expensive interpreting and translating bureaucracy, probably more cumbersome and expensive than can possibly be afforded.

As observed in the last-but-one post here, this is simply not the case. The EU's language regime may not work in LL's theory, but it certainly works in everyday practice.

On the question of expense, LL has a link to a second Wikipedia article according to which:
The European Parliament employs over 4,000 interpreters at an annual cost in excess of 1 billion euro.

Who writes this stuff, I wonder. Both these figures are overstated by a factor of about 10, by my reckoning. They appear in fact to be aggregates for translators and interpreters across all the institutions.

Anyway, the overall cost of translation and interpretation services at the various EU institutions comes to around 1% of the EU budget and represents something like the price of a cup of coffee per citizen per annum.

This is regarded as an acceptable price to pay given the importance of direct access to laws and law-making and equal participation and representation in the democratic process.

A couple of facts to close with, taken from a European Commission press release.

On translation:
For 2007, the cost of translation in the Commission is estimated to be around EUR 302 million. This represents a cost to each citizen of around EUR 0.63 per year. The introduction of three new official languages will not increase the cost for the public thanks to the new translation strategy. In 2006, the overall cost of translation in all EU institutions is estimated at EUR 800 million.

On interpretation:
The total cost of interpretation in the EU institutions was almost EUR 190 million in 2005, the equivalent of EUR 0.42 per citizen per year. The cost of interpretation per citizen is not expected to rise with the accession of Bulgaria and Romania and the addition of Irish.

It disturbs me that you cite Wikipedia in such a fashion. You may know which article is ok and which is "off by an order of magnitude", but most people won't. So we're trusting you here, not Wikipedia, and it would make more sense for you to just assert what you believe to be the case instead of referencing a source which (by your own analysis) we can only trust when you endorse it.
The reason I mention the Wikipedia articles is because Language Log does.

The first article is reliable not because I say so but because it links to an authoritative source for its claim i.e. the relevant EU regulation. The second article fails to give any source for its claim that interpretation at the EP costs over EUR 1 billion and this figure is contradicted by the European Commission press release I quote according to which total interpretation costs for all the institutions are EUR 190 million.
Yes, that article irritated me too, but of course LL contains many writers. Thanks for doing the ground work.
I just went to the site and saw an article from Die Presse cited in the press section there that seems to be along these lines.
Have you thought of editing the Wikipedia article. I see in the discussion tab that it has been cited as a source by a media organization, whichever that is.
My previous attempts to edit Wikipedia articles came to nothing - the rule there seems to be the less you know the more you dig your heels in. 'Editing' Language Log actually proved easier although Geoffrey clearly dishes better than he takes. Like most of us, no doubt.

Thanks for the flefo alert (I still lurk).
Yes, of course,like most of us (he is British too, after all).
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