Interpreters have the last laugh

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The Independent Online
IF YOU speak fluent Finnish, Swedish, Greek and English and a smattering of German, the European Commission in Brussels probably has a job for you.

Enlarging the European Union to include Finland, Sweden, Austria and maybe Norway (assuming successful referendums in these countries) may be a political victory for the negotiators, but is an administrative nightmare for those responsible for oiling the wheels of Euro-business.

It is the first time for eight years that the Union has contemplated admitting new members and the workload of the European institutions has increased enormously.

Every official document will have to be translated not only into the nine working EU languages, but now Finnish, Swedish and possibly Norwegian as well. Such a service comes dear: in the case of the parliament it is about pounds 155m a year. Top-level meetings too will have to be interpreted into all these languages.

The European Parliament will swell from 567 members to 639, and new buildings are under construction to accommodate them. The European Commission - the EU's executive body - will have to recruit Swedes, Austrians, Finns, and possibly Norwegians, to its administration and liberate some senior positions. The number of Commissioners will expand from 17 to 21, making it harder than ever to reach consensus.

'We'll manage,' said a spokesman for the translation service that employs 100 translators per language and handles approximately one million pages of text per year for not only the parliament, Commission and Council, but also the Court of Justice and of Auditors. But already there are sometimes problems when texts in the less widely spoken languages such as Greek arrive several days after the English or French versions.

The interpretation booths are at least as hard-pressed. A shortage of exotic combinations, for example a Danish- or Greek-speaking Portuguese, means that the teams often work in relays, with a Dane perhaps interpreting a Greek via English. The fear is that double relays will be more usual. There is already a saying in the European Parliament that the 'Danes always laugh last' because they hear the joke seconds after everyone else; in future, it may be a case of Finns guffawing after the speaker has sat down.

It was originally suggested there should be just one Nordic language - Swedish - the most widely understood. The Danes were not alone in rejecting such a regime. If Denmark threw out the Maastricht treaty first time round, it was in part because little effort was made to sell it to the citizens. Language in the context of the EU is as much about representation as communication.

Particularly in the Nordic countries, where securing a yes-vote in the forthcoming referendums will be hard, language is a key question. 'It is unthinkable that we should join without the same rights as everybody else - that we should not be able to read documents in our native tongue,' said a Swedish diplomat.

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