Saving the EU from getting lost in translation

Tue Apr 6, 2010 4:48pm EDT
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By Sangeeta Shastry

BRUSSELS (Reuters Life!) - 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.   Continued...

<p>A translator gestures during a joint news conference of Belgium's Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck, Spain's Justice Minister Francisco Caamano, outgoing EU Justice, Liberty and Security Commissioner Jacques Barrot and Hungary's Deputy State Secretary for Justice Judit Fazekas (not pictured) at the end of the European Union's Justice Ministers summit in Toledo January 22, 2010. REUTERS/Susana Vera</p>