Europe tries to find an answer -- in nine languages

Unscrambling the ramblings of the 10-nation, seven-language European Community has made the interpretation service at the EC's headquarters here the largest in the world. But its work has only begun.

In several years Spain and Portugal will join, adding two new languages to what some call the Common Market Tower of Babel.

"It we continue with the present system -- that is, interpreting each language into each other language -- the addition of three new tongues could completely paralyze the functioning of the EC," says Renee van Hoof, head of the service, recalling similar growing pains when Britain and Denmark joined the EC eight years ago.

The problems could be more than merely technical. The EC is already experiencing budgetary difficulties, and adding languages will not help matters.

The cost of untangling the EC's linguistic mess has been running at nearly $ 20 million a year. There are some 9,000 meetings every year, and interpreting a single meeting in which all six languages are spoken sets the taxpayer back roughly $35,000.

Mrs. van Hoof, whose service is responsible for interpreting at the EC Commission, Council, Economic and Social Committee, and (in Luxembourg) the European Investment Bank, says the introduction of "an artificial language," such as Esperanto, would be no solution to future needs, calling it "utopic." Nor will machines be the answer.

"They've been working on translating machines for a long time," she says, "and they're still nowhere, to say nothing of interpreting machines."

One "pragmatic" solution under consideration is to allow conference participants the right to speak in their native tongues but to interpret their discourses only in the two or three languages "most widely understood."

"That would keep costs down and quality up," Mrs. van Hoof explains.

The least attractive solution would be to guarantee interpretation in nine languages -- English, French, German, Danish, Portuguese, Spanish, Greek, Dutch, and Italian.

"That would require as many as 31 interpreters at a single meeting," Mrs. van Hoof says, "and in most cases, that would mean there were more interpreters than delegates."

Running the daily affairs of the EC takes an average of 450 interpreters -- about 20 percent of whom free-lance. That is in addition to translators (about 520) who reword the written words of about 450,000 pages of EC documents a year. There are 400 fulltime interpreters in the EC stable, compared with 103 and 85, respectively, at the UN offices in New York and Geneva, where five official languages are used.

At the EC, a computer schedules and keeps track of the interpreters, shuffling them from meeting to meeting with high- speed ease.

About three-quarters of the EC's growing corps of interpreters, who earn $2, 000 to $3,000 a month, come from special schools -- the largest are in Paris, Geneva, Heidelberg, and Washington, D.C.

But Mrs. van Hoof explains that linguists are not necessarily preferred. She says she is finding an increasing number of candidates among university graduates who have majored in other fields but who have an aptitude for languages.

Interpreters have been around for ages, but it was not until 1946, at the Nuremberg war trials, that the method of interpreting simultaneously (as opposed to consecutively, or after a speech was completed) was used for the first time. "It is still a young profession," says Mrs. van Hoof, who set up the EC service in 1958, "and all international organizations are experiencing a shortage of qualified interpreters."

The role interpretation has played in the working of the EC has grown remarkably in the past 20 years. In 1959, the EC held 2,801 meetings requiring 4,438 interpreting days. Today, the numbers are 9,000 and 80,000, respectively.

"There will be problems," Mrs. van Hoof, a Belgian, says in fluent English, "but we've managed with six languages, and I'm confident we'll manage with nine. It will just take some patience."

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