In Brussels, translation is a booming business. At the European Commission, a million pages a year are translated into 11 languages at the cost of a quarter of a billion pounds. At the European Parliament, translation and interpreting already eats up one-third of the entire budget, translating from Svenska to Portuguese to Suomi to Ellenika.
That is only the beginning. The 11 languages of the existing Union are set to expand with the addition of five east European countries in a few years' time. All of which makes life both complicated and expensive, at a time when streamlining is de rigueur.
In some respects, life would be simpler if just a small number of languages were used - French and English, for example. The Germans don't mind which languages are used - "as long as German is included". And so it goes on: nobody wants to feel they are a linguistic add-on. Language equals national dignity and national dignity has no price. Officials sometimes complain they cannot understand what is going on if the full complement of interpreters is not provided; more often than not, the complaint about understanding nothing is made in immaculate French or English.
The paradox of the expensive interpreting services is that many officials in Brussels are multilingual to a fault. For those who need translation, however, the problem is more acute. Already, there is an unsurprising lack of interpreters for such combinations as Finnish-Portuguese. When Estonia, Hungary and Slovenia are added to the brew, things get more complicated still. Each session need dozens of interpreters to cope with every possible combination.
Gridlock approaches. One way out, which is being tentatively explored, is to use "pivot" languages as a reference point - a kind of linguistic Clapham Junction. Thus, a Swedish speaker can be translated into English, and from there into Greek. One disadvantage is that the listeners are out of sync. "Already, the Greeks laugh last at the jokes. The Estonians will be laughing two days later," said one diplomat.
For many, language is the crux of national identity, which makes the cumbersome system difficult to change. But the Euro-Dulux chart can hardly expand for ever. One diplomat acknowledged: "It's becoming a real tower of Babel."Reuse content