As of May 1, there will be twenty official languages at the EU—and all of them will need to be translated into each other. Angus Roxburgh of BBC News explains the situation:
Twenty languages gives a total of 190 possible combinations (English-German, French-Czech, Finnish-Portuguese, etc), and finding any human being who speaks, for example, both Greek and Estonian or Slovene and Lithuanian is well-nigh impossible.
To get round this problem, the parliament will use much more “relay translation”, where a speech is interpreted first into one language and then into another – and perhaps into a fourth or fifth.
Clearly the scope for mistakes in this game of Chinese whispers is huge.
“If I’m first in the chain, and make a mistake, then everyone else down the relay makes the same mistake – or worse,” Jana Jalvi, one of the new Estonian recruits says.
Of course, one possibility would be to settle on a single language:
The obvious choice, in fact, would be English, which is more widely spoken as a second language than any other.
But the French – who have the parliament on their soil and who, after all, were founder-members of the EU – were outraged by the very suggestion.
They are already miffed at the slow easing-out of their language as the chief means of communication in the European Commission, where English is steadily gaining ground…
Meanwhile, translating has become the EU’s biggest boom industry.
The answer’s perfectly obvious: the official language should be treated like the presidency of the EU. That is, it should rotate amongst the member states. Whoever’s president gets to pick the official language for their term. No language is given special status over another.
I like it—especially if the president has a puckish sense of humor and picks, say, Kabardian!