by Manuel Herranz
On 21st November 2012, lawmakers approved a report by Stanimir Ilchev, a Bulgarian Liberal MEP, that will bring change to the procedural rules recording plenary debates. This decision could be a Godsend for machine translation and language technology developers as the EU plans to increase translation productivity (or times) by 25% – this being a target in current R&D Language Technology Funding Calls.
Starting from the next plenary, on 10th December, the European Parliament is not going to be required to translate the session into all the 23 official languages of the EU. Over the years, this requirement has proved quite costly and can take up to four months. However, a bias towards the English language has been pointed to in many circles and instances. For example, Jean Quatremer, a renowned French political journalist from the French daily Libération, complained about the official press statements containing the Commission’s economic recommendations to member states, published on 30th May 2012. These statements had been eagerly awaited by the press because of the euro debt crisis, but initially were only made available to journalists in English. The translations into other languages followed a few hours later that day. Mr. Quatremer said that initial monolingual release provided the Anglo-Saxon press with an “incredible competitive advantage” and it threw into doubt the institutions’ democratic legitimacy, making very clear his position on a very strong-worded blog entry
From December 2012, the EU legislative will only record proceedings in the original language of the speaker. Nevertheless, the proceedings will still be required to be translated into a particular language if there is a request by a member state. However, in the European Parliament many official press statements are currently published only in English and a very limited amount of them are translated in other languages – despite huge efforts and money invested into translation services and increasingly, in machine translation technology.
“This is one of our struggles – that the press releases and all publications and communications with society (tenders, contracts, etc.) are translated,” said Miguel Angel Martinez Martinez, the Parliament’s Vice-President in charge of multilingualism.
Numbers speak for themselves: 72% of all EU documents are drafted in English, with French coming a far second with 12%. Only 3% are originally drafted in German. On the other hand, 88% of the users of the Commission’s Europa website speak English. In reality, “providing documents in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian would cover close to 100% of all the EU’s linguistic needs”, said the DG Translation Director-General Lönnroth, speaking at a debate hosted by the Centre for European Policy Studies on 22nd February. The Union “will just have to cope” with increasing linguistic pressures brought on by future enlargements because “no decision-maker would dare to touch the main principles” of the EU’s language policy.
Mr Ilchev rejected proposals to translate the sessions only in English, as it would “appear linguistically unjust”. In the current EU, having 23 official languages means 506 translation and interpreting combinations, said Translation Director-General Lönnroth, a figure which can increase significantly when Croatia, Serbia join, and even Turkey in the foreseeable future.
Acknowledging he is not a “language fanatic”, the director-general claimed he thinks “about how to reduce the workload every day” as it was “not in the taxpayer’s interest” to provide every language combination. Lönnroth said back in February that “it would be easier if everybody accepted that English and French were the main EU languages”. This is what (partially) is going to happen, although Mr. Ilchev assures that the initiative will not harm multilingualism, a principle enshrined in EU treaties: “of course this principle is not in question and everyone can listen to our debates in plenary in their own language” – through interpretation. Some of the EU’s research funding actually goes into technology solutions and research. For example, the SUMMAT project aims at creating an online service for subtitling by machine translation.
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