The European Community today has 12 member states and nine working languages. Not only do all its important meetings have to be interpreted into every one of those languages; so does its paperwork. Every treaty, every regulation, every directive, every edition of the voluminous Official Journal has to be rendered faultlessly into everything from Danish to Greek. When one of the member governments corresponds with one of the Community institutions, it can do so - and demand a reply - in its own language.
To turn each of nine languages into eight others, the Community has therefore to provide 72 different bilingual translation competences. By 1996, when Sweden and Finland are likely to be in, it will need 110; by 2000, there could well be a further four languages, bringing the combinations up to 210.
Is it any wonder that some officials in Brussels fear that the Community is building its own modern-day tower of Babel? The Commission employs more than 1,000 professional translators - about one for every three administrators. Simple arithmetic suggests that by the end of the century, the translators will outnumber the administrators.
Eduard Brackeniers, the head of the Commission's translation service, admits that six more languages would certainly be a problem; but he says the Commission is already gearing up for Swedish and Finnish, and thinks two new languages can be accommodated without any fundamental changes.
To be fair to Mr Brackeniers, the underlying difficulty is not of his own making. When six countries founded the EC with the Treaty of Rome in 1957, they declared that each of their four languages (French, German, and Italian plus one extra language between the three Benelux nations) would be of equal weight. In their very first regulation, they agreed that the Community should do its work in all four. And as the EC grew, each new member brought in a new language. The only exception was Ireland: although the treaty was translated into Irish, Dublin was willing to use English in its dealings with Brussels.
Looking back, of course, the bureaucrats in Brussels should all have learnt Esperanto (or perhaps Latin, as medieval monks did). Even if that was too great a leap for the visionaries of the 1950s, they might have followed the United Nations, and restricted themselves to fewer working languages.
But they did not - and that is why Mr Brackeniers runs the largest barony of the Commission, absorbing about a third of the entire administrative budget and churning out some 850,000 pages of text a year. His officials boast that the EC's translation department (not including interpreters, who are dismissed disparagingly by some translators as part of the apparatus of conferences) is the world's largest.
Its facilities are impressive. It has 18 libraries - one in each language in both Brussels and in Luxembourg. Plus a lot of expensive computer hardware and software, including a dictionary of half a million specialist terms. Want to know what the active ingredient of preservative E220 is in Greek? How to say 'subsidiarity' in Danish? Or to find whether BRS stands for Bertrand Russell Society or Boron Recycling System? The database can answer these questions, and many more.
Three years ago, Mr Brackeniers reorganised the department so that translators would concentrate on specialist areas. Officials say the service has improved. Not only do the translators do a good job, they also often know more about the papers they are translating than those who wrote them.
But the department has failed to produce any economies of scale. Its translators say they are expected to do between five and seven pages a day; in the private sector, translators who want to eat two meals a day have to achieve double that. And although top-priority items such as Commissioners' speeches can be turned around in a morning, the average waiting time for a document, according to Mr Brackeniers, is an astonishing six weeks.
Surely that is a little slow, given that most agencies ask only three or four days? 'Yes,' he replies. 'The delay should be only four weeks.' A backlog, Mr Brackeniers insists, makes it easier to schedule the translators' work load.
One reason for this apparent inefficiency is that new technology has had little effect on the department. Although half the translators have computers on their desks, only 5 per cent of them can touch-type. In most cases, translations are dictated, typed and corrected mechanically before being sent by internal mail back to their authors.
The department's experts are trying to develop a computer translation programme. But as the EC gets bigger, the job will become increasingly difficult.Reuse content