Cost in translation: EU spends €1bn on language services

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The Independent Online

New translation and interpretation rights for the Irish language will cost the European Parliament more than €677,000 (£470,000) next year. The figure has stoked the debate on whether the EU is becoming an outrageously expensive "Tower of Babel".

From 2007 MEPs will be able to speak in the chamber of the European Parliament in the Irish language with interpretation, though no more than five Euro-MPs have the fluency to do so.

The decision to accord Irish full status is likely to stoke fierce passions within an EU that already has 20 recognised languages, 380 language permutations and an annual interpreting and translation bill of €1bn.

To cope with the new demands for Irish, the parliament plans to will create nine new interpreter and translator posts in 2007.

Meanwhile, Catalans and Basques have won more limited language rights. And Welsh speakers are stepping up demands for recognition of their native tongue. When Ireland joined the then European Economic Community in 1973, Irish was given special status since it is one of the country's two official languages.

But pressure to exercise these rights only grew in 2004, when the EU expanded giving full status to a host of new tongues. These include Maltese despite the fact that Malta is largely Anglophone and has just 397,000 citizens.

Catalan, Valencian, Basque and Galician-speakers have been unable to get the same deal as the Irish because they qualify as official languages only in parts of Spain and not throughout the country.

Instead, they have had to settle for the right for their citizens to correspond with European institutions in their own language. Documents will also be translated at the expense of the Madrid government.

This second-tier status has prompted resentment in Catalonia because there are as many as seven million Catalan speakers. Figures for 2002 show that of Ireland's 3.9 million population, only 36 per cent have "an ability" in Irish with many fewer using the tongue on a daily basis.

However, Sean O Neachtain, Fianna Fail MEP and a native Irish speaker, argued: "The Irish language is a declared national language. Nobody should begrudge us this opportunity because the Irish language is in the process of revival.

"Strong measures have to be adopted because Irish is vulnerable, being up against possibly the strongest spoken language in the world: English. I will be using Irish in the parliament." Plaid Cymru yesterday welcomed the developments concerning Irish and other minority languages and said it would continue pressing for an improvement in the status of Welsh. The party wants citizens to be able to communicate with EU institutions in Welsh as a first step.

In some European institutions, use of languages is often rationed to English, French and sometimes German - one of which diplomats or officials or journalists all speak.

But MEPs are not elected on their linguistic ability and many speak only their native tongue. In a TV age they argue that it is important for them to be seen to be addressing their constituents in a language they understand, hence the need for full translation and interpretation. But the growing demands have put a massive strain on the EU's interpretation and translation services, which have struggled to recruit speakers of the new languages.