Saving the EU from getting lost in translation

Updated: 2010-04-07 08:54
Large Medium Small

Saving the EU from getting lost in translation

BRUSSELS - It's a high-pressure job that keeps the European Union functioning, but you seldom see the people doing it -- you only ever hear them.

Interpreters are the link that allows 27 countries to talk to one another, conveying the complexities of EU affairs into 23 official languages and preventing the European Union enterprise descending into Tower-of-Babel-like confusion.

With scores of meetings every day across the EU's main institutions -- the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council of EU ministers -- interpreters have to be on hand at all hours to ensure nothing is lost in translation.

The Commission's interpretation service alone has a full-time staff of 500, backed by up to 400 freelancers when the pressure gets overwhelming, with demands to translate Estonian into Danish or Greek, or Portuguese into Maltese and Slovene.

Seated two or three in dimly lit glass booths at the back of conference rooms or meeting halls, the interpreters -- never called translators -- are a tightly knit bunch who inhabit a multilingual world where a great deal rides on the nuance.

"A booth is a small place. It's an intense relationship, a close relationship with the people you're working with," said Andres Barreiro, a Commission interpreter whose native language is Galician (spoken in northwestern Spain), but who also interprets among Finnish, English, Spanish and Portuguese.

"You always try to convey the message and try to think of the main ideas of the speech. You just don't repeat everything. I guess that's why we are called interpreters," he said.

Barreiro started out working for the European Parliament's separate interpretation service ten years ago before moving to the Commission, the EU's executive arm, where he can be called on to interpret in up to 20 meetings a day.

The pressure can be intense, with interpreters (depending on their languages) having to capture the subtleties of what French President Nicolas Sarkozy might be saying about financial market regulation and translate that simultaneously into, say, Swedish.

All the while they have to ensure they have grasped the suggestion in Sarkozy's diction, understood the financial jargon, and conveyed it all immediately into Swedish without any risk of misunderstanding that could provoke a diplomatic incident or have an unintended impact on financial markets.

The cost amounts to around 250 million euros ($335 mln) a year, but as supporters of the interpretation services point out, that's only about 50 euro cents for every EU citizen.


The key to good interpretation, says Barreiro, who studied for degrees in law and economics, is planning and hard work.

"For me, I feel really bad if I don't know what the story is about," he said, explaining that discussions could be on anything from fishing quotas in the North Sea to trade restrictions on Vietnam or competition policy in Britain.

"It's extremely important to try to read the documents before. That way you see beforehand any possible problem that could appear in the meeting. That's always necessary -- and of course for some meetings more necessary than others."

Interpreters don't translate every word, they home in on the most important elements of what a speaker is saying, distilling the particular speech into its critical elements and conveying them concisely to those listening on headphones.

Some adopt the same tone as the speaker they are interpreting, others are more automatic in their delivery and still others inject their own enthusiasm and energy.

According to Barreiro, mistakes are seldom made, even if there are occasional quibbles over a misinterpreted word.

While high-pressure, the job comes with plenty of rewards, with interpreters in the very frontline as major decisions are being made. They are a verbal bridge between nationalities and cultures, and a critical link in the EU's democratic chain.

One of Barreiro's most vivid memories is interpreting during a meeting when the EU decided to assign forces to southern Lebanon after the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel.

"That was a long-awaited decision because it was very difficult to get soldiers to do that job," Barreiro said. "That was what the whole world was waiting for."