Internal Voices

Switch to desktop Register Login

Inside the European Tower of Babel

EU politics rests on an abundance of documents. Proper translation is key. EU politics rests on an abundance of documents. Proper translation is key. (c) European Union - EP, 2013.


Neglected and disregarded by some in the European Circus, there is one department that keeps the machinery linguistically together. A trainee tells about her experiences from inside.



There is a department in the European Commission that hardly anybody ever thinks about– even within the institution itself –, that is “forgotten” in the statistics sometimes and that is only included at the end of the workflow, if at all. Nevertheless, without this modest and inconspicuous department, communication within the Commission would be a messy and utterly confusing endeavour. A Babylonian mayhem caused by the 500-something language combinations possible within the European Union and its 24 official languages. These silent heroes reside about half an hour away from the city centre. The rest of the Eurocrats will only take note of their building when they happen to look out of the notoriously overcrowded 12 Express bus on their way to the airport while tailbacking their way through Rue de Genève in Evere.


The department I am talking about is the Directorate-General for Translation (DGT), the in-house translation service of the European Commission. During my nearly four months with them, I noticed that indeed we are not on everybody’s radar – despite the vital role translation plays in promoting understanding and making work possible within the Union.


The reason for DGT’s remote location is simple: translators don’t need to travel much. We are translating, transferring written texts from one language to another. It is only us and our texts. Phalanxes of black letters on the white screen. Tens of thousands every day. It is a bit sad that hardly anybody seems to know we are even there, let alone what we are doing. Yet our work is important to solve the constant chaos within the European Tower of Babel.
It is a fascinating Babylonian gathering of people there at DGT. Some two and a half thousand people, speaking amongst themselves not only the 24 official languages of the EU but also additional languages such as Chinese. Most of them work from two or three languages into their mother tongue. And then there are the geniuses who cover a lot more languages than that.


All the other Directorates-General can send their texts to DGT for translation. They then get distributed according to the language of the original and the target languages. Most of the texts are written in English nowadays and get translated into all the other languages. French, which used to be the most important language in the past, now plays a minor role – much to the disappointment of a lot of long-serving translators. It rarely happens that a text needs to be translated from, say, Estonian to Greek. But even then you would find someone who can cover the combination.


With the variety of the texts passing over their desk, a translator gets a pretty exhaustive and – if deadlines are tight – exhausting picture of what EU politics is dealing with. You quickly have to become familiar with the strict, sometimes tedious formatting requirements and formulation rules of legal documents. Since all the translated versions are legally binding in all the Member States, an Italian could go to court with a Polish text if he finds there is a difference to the Italian version. When translating non-legal texts aimed at citizens in different member states, you need to culturally adapt them. The French custom of “composter un billet” – means stamping a ticket before getting on a train – is for example rarely understood by Germans, where the conductor devaluates the ticket on the train.


It might seem scary to see the importance of the documents you are dealing with on a daily basis knowing that people are actually going to use them for pretty decisive purposes: as a basis for discussion, for information or for transforming them into national legislation. But in the end, all translators feel proud when they have translated a draft decision for a meeting, an answer to an MEP’s questions, a letter to the foreign minister or a press release. Someone is going to read these things and they will be useful or disappointing or simply help people with their daily work.


With all these tasks of DGT, there is plenty of work for everyone inside the grey office block. That, fortunately, also means: no dull time for trainees! Still, we are far from solving all the linguistic confusion inside the European Tower of Babel. But we are working on it, I promise.


Mareike Stutz is an intern with the European Commission’s DG Translation


Leave a comment