In the European Parliament, all Community languages are equally important: all parliamentary documents are published in all the official languages of the European Union (EU) and every MEP has the right to speak in the official language of his/her choice. What better way to guarantee the transparency and accessibility of Parliament's work for all members of the general public.
Firmly rooted in the European treaties, multilingualism is the reflection of the cultural and linguistic diversity of the European Union. It also makes the European institutions more accessible and transparent for the general public, which constitutes a guarantee for the success of the EU's democratic system.
The European Parliament differs from the other EU institutions through its obligation to ensure the highest possible degree of multilingualism. All EU citizens must be able to refer to legislation directly concerning them in the language of their country. Furthermore, since every European citizen has the right to stand for election to the European Parliament, it is unreasonable to require Members to have a perfect command of one of the common languages. The right of each Member to read parliamentary documents, to follow debates and to speak in his/her own language is expressly recognised in Parliament's Rules of Procedure. In addition, in its role as legislator the European Parliament is obliged to guarantee that the linguistic quality of all the laws which it adopts is beyond reproach in all official languages.
The Treaty provisions also allow all European citizens to follow Parliament's work, to ask questions and to receive replies in their own language.
What a long way we have come since the end of the 1950s, when four languages only were spoken in the institutions of the European Communities! Today, no fewer than 23 official languages are used in the European Parliament, which is an immense linguistic challenge.
The first regulation adopted by the European Communities in 1958 laid down that the official languages of the institutions would be the four languages - Dutch, French, German and Italian - of the founding countries, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
With each successive enlargement the languages of the new Member States were added. In 1973, Danish, English and Irish were added (Irish with a special status as 'Treaty language' meaning that Ireland's Act of Accession and the basic texts relating to Ireland were translated), followed by Greek in 1981, Portuguese and Spanish in 1986 and Finnish and Swedish in 1995. In 2004, Czech, Estonian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Slovak and Slovene became official EU languages.
Since 1 January 2007, the European Union has had a total of 23 official languages following the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, Irish having also become an official language on the same date.
These 23 official languages make a total of 506 possible combinations, since each language can be translated into 22 others. In order to meet this challenge, the European Parliament has set up highly efficient interpreting, translation and legal text verification services. Very strict rules have been put in place to guarantee the efficiency of these services and to hold the budgetary cost down to reasonable levels.
To produce the different language versions of its written documents and to correspond with citizens in all the EU languages, the European Parliament maintains an in-house translation service able to meet its quality requirements and to work to the tight deadlines imposed by parliamentary procedures. It also has recourse to freelance professional translators for non-priority texts.
Parliament employs almost 700 translators in its translation services whose job is to translate into all the official languages several categories of documents, including:
As a general rule, translators translate into their mother tongue. However, with the latest enlargements to 25 and now 27 Member States and the increase in the number of possible language combinations to 506 (23 official languages which can be translated into 22 others), it is sometimes difficult to find someone able to translate from a given source language into a given target language, especially in the case of the least widely spoken languages in the Union.
To translate texts written in these languages, the European Parliament has therefore put in place a system of 'relay' languages: a text is first translated into one of the most widely used languages (English, French or German) and from there into the minor languages. Other major Community languages (Italian, Polish and Spanish) could also become relay languages in due course.
The main task of the European Parliament's interpreters is to render orally the speeches given by MEPs faithfully and in real time into all the official languages. Interpreting services are provided for all multilingual meetings organised by the official bodies of the institution.
The European Parliament's Directorate-General for Interpretation and Conferences employs approximately 430 staff interpreters and has at its disposal a reserve of some 2500 freelance interpreters (auxiliary conference interpreters) whom it calls on very regularly as required to cover its needs.
Interpreting is needed mainly for:
Between 800 and 1000 interpreters are on hand for the plenary sittings of Parliament, at which simultaneous interpretation is provided from and into all the EU's official languages. For other meetings, interpretation is provided as required, increasingly often to other than official languages too.
In principle, each interpreter works into his/her mother tongue out of the original language of the speaker. But with 506 possible language combinations (23 x 22 languages), it is not always easy to find someone who can interpret from a given language into another and in such cases a relay system is used, whereby the interpretation from one language to another passes through a third, the 'pivot' or relay language.
The legislation adopted by the European Parliament affects almost 500 million people in 27 countries and 23 official languages: it must be identical and as clear as possible in all the languages. Verifying the linguistic and legislative quality of the texts is the job of Parliament's lawyer-linguists.
Parliament's lawyer-linguists ensure, throughout the legislative procedure, the highest possible quality of legislative texts in all EU languages. In order to guarantee that Parliament's political will is rendered in high quality legislative texts the lawyer-linguists are involved at all stages of the legislative procedure.
The work is carried out by a team of 75 lawyer-linguists. In particular they: