Cause of death: too few EU translators?

According to the Guardian:

bq. Doctors in some of the world’s poorest countries are being denied cheap life-saving drugs for patients because Brussels lacks enough linguists to translate a new patent law into the 20 languages of the European Union, the British government said last night.

Presumably, before the law was passed, they were being denied cheap life-saving drugs as a result of the inaction of the EU legislature?

bq. A spokeswoman for Mr Lamy said last night that translators in Brussels were doing their utmost to cope with the complex extra work caused by the enlargement of the EU from 15 to 25 countries this year, and promised the legislation would be ready in the autumn. “I don’t think there is more difficulty with this than with any other piece of legislation.”

And later:

bq. So far only Canada among developed countries has passed new laws, and Britain is unable to do so until primary legislation is agreed in Brussels.

I’m not sure that this is strictly a translation department problem. I presume they have a different team to ‘translate’ legislation, which is binding in all languages.

17 thoughts on “Cause of death: too few EU translators?

  1. Typical red tape Margaret. I am led to understand that your average EU translator only does about 10 pages a day …at maximum! I know of translation agencies which used to use the tried-and-tested dictaphone-and-typist technique and quite easily coped with a high capacities and which then switched to the “new, better and more efficient” translator-at-computer” technique where capacity plummets and clients lose patience and go elsewhere. I imagine it’s just like that at the EU, stuffed full of civil servants doing their utmost to avoid work and getting paid a wacking great salary out of my pocket….. Do you get the idea I am against civil servants Margaret?….quite right!


  2. No, I can’t go along with that. We aren’t talking about EU translators, but EU lawyer-linguists, who may be in the translation department. I have done a few of the opinions of advocates-general presented to the court, and those are really heavy legal texts with long sentences. I couldn’t do ten pages of that kind of thing a day. EU speeches are a completely different matter. On top of that, in this case I think it isn’t the translation department, because we’re talking about preparing legislation in English that is binding in law. I know not all translators agree with me, but I would not expected multilingual law to be drawn up except by specialists in statutory drafting. Céline at Naked Translations, in Translation Blog, says the whole lot should be farmed out to translation agencies ( I for one would not be happy to find EU legislation being prepared by translation agencies.

  3. According to it the Directorate General for Translation handles “Legislation, policy documents, speeches, background papers on legal, technical, financial, scientific and economic issues, correspondence, press material – whatever the Commission and its departments need for their work”. So presumably the DGT has the necessary legal expertise in-house.
    The .pdf
    “Translating for a multilingual community” has more details.

    “at present just over 20% of the total output of the Translation DG is done by freelance translators both inside and outside the European Union. This comes to roughly 250 000 pages a year, and consists of material which does not have to be translated in-house because it is not confidential, politically sensitive or wanted urgently.”

    It’s no secret that there’s a shortage of translators for the languages of the new entrants, and in some cases a backlog of work, but you obviously can’t just reallocate persons from German to Slovenian if they happen not to know Slovenian, so there will probably continue to be problems for a while.

  4. Des: yes, page 5 of that Translating for a multilingual community is quite detailed. I was thinking of translating for the Court, which is separate.
    It appears that first of all the translators translate the draft (the white / green paper is earlier still). Later, the draft is submitted to the Parliament and the Council, and the translators there translate the series of amendments. Other translators working for the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions translate the opinions of those bodies on the draft legislation. The final working language will be chosen pragmatically, so that a draft written in English may have amendments written on it in French. At the final stage (as in the Guardian article) there are not many language problems left because the text has been translated several times (Quoting Wagner, Bech and Martínez, Translating for the European Union Institutions – – can’t get the hang of html in comments)
    Of course the backlog is well known.
    I still don’t think the legislation is farmed out. I don’t think the (freelance) EU translators I know do legislation. It sounds like in-house work to me. But I have been wrong before.

    One could take the Guardian article as over-icing the cake in order to draw attention to the problem.

  5. Paul,

    I understand that 6 to 7 pages a day is the standard average output for a Commission translator (almost said SdT translator there, but of course they’re now a Directorate General!). And that many of the older generation refuse to use Trados etc. anyway. The pain of golden handcuffs…

  6. Ideally I think of course that it should be done in-house, but as it’s clearly not happening, I don’t think it’s that ridiculous to suggest giving the job to a reputable translation agency; after all, good translation agencies hire good freelance translators. I just assumed that there must be translators out there specialised in EU legislation/terminology, am I wrong about that?

  7. Céline: well, I’ve calmed down somewhat now. I know they haven’t got enough translators at the EU. I got the situation slightly wrong in my head: apparently it’s the draft legislation that hasn’t yet been prepared, whereas I was assuming it was just the final stage that was missing. I am inclined to believe still that this kind of thing would be done in-house, but since it’s going to be revised beyond belief I suppose it could be sent out. I wonder if anyone knows that. Btw, the EU has competitions for freelances and it publishes lists online of the individuals and agencies who were awarded the contracts. Here are some into English:

  8. I believe you’re right about legislation not being translated by freelances. Might happen in an exceptional case of course but it’s certainly not the norm.

    Can’t say for sure, but I don’t think the lawyer-linguists do any of the donkey work. Just fiddle things around after the translators have done their bit.

    If the translation situation is anything like the interpretation situation, then they’re having big problems finding decent people from the new member states (some more than others). Add that to the perennial budgetary constraints and it’s easy to see why there are difficulties. In that regard, it was heartening to see in the Guardian piece that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was among the signatories of the UK’s ‘demand for action’. That surely means Britain will now support the expansion of the EU budget necessary to avoid any recurrence of this kind of problem what with children dying etc.

  9. Margaret: Yes, the draft will probably change quite a lot but what also made it ok in my little head was that I assumed the EU permanent staff would go through the translations to ensure accuracy and consistency. I wasn’t talking about farming out important pieces of legislation to dubious translators and publishing them as they are; good translators specialised in that field + strict in-house editing process could do the trick, non? And save a few lives.

  10. Ciaran: Thanks very much. I was hoping for some information from someone who knows.
    Céline: I apologize for my tone in referring to your entry (‘farming out’), which was somewhat polemical and I wasn’t really thinking of the effect on you when I wrote it.
    I didn’t get it all right. I think the legislation has to be done in-house, although I gather there is quite a routine element to EU legislation.
    I am sure there are good agencies outside and not everything runs smoothly inside.
    The only part of the translation I am slightly acquainted with is at the Court (IPKAT is constantly complaining about slow translations of cases The decisions themselves are done in-house only, but even what is sent out to freelances goes to those with legal qualifications. Of course what you need is not so much a legal qualification as familiarity with the work.

  11. Maybe I can add something on this topic because I’m at least tangentially involved in the translation of official EU material (I coordinate the German version of IASs/IFRSs). I think there’s a general problem of a lack of really good translators with in-depth subject area knowledge – probably for all EU language combinations, and most definitely for the languages of the new member states. Because the Commission can’t/won’t pay the standard market rates for first-class translators, they’re mostly far too busy with better paid work to bother with EU translations.

    We’re very fortunate that we now have two German translators working on the IASs/IFRSs who are not only excellent translators, but also willing to work at the rates offered. Even then, the amount of revision required is still quite substantial. But that’s hardly surprising given the nature of the work involved: there’s probably only a handful of translators worldwide (in any languages) who are as familiar with pensions and tax accounting as they are with financial instruments and impairment accounting. But what our two translators are now producing is a considerable improvement on what we received before.

    The translations are reviewed and revised by subject area specialists before being forwarded to the Commission via the IASCF. A DGT translator also reviews them (with the right to comment, but not to change the translations automatically), but they’re not passed to the lawyer-linguists.

    If the problems we’ve faced in producing first-class translations to an extremely tight schedule are then multiplied by the even more complicated process of “standard” EU legislation, it’s hardly surprising a) that legislation may be delayed, and b) that translation errors also occur. We simply don’t have enough really good translators, but I guess that was always the case.

  12. Robin: thanks for the further example.
    About rates: it depends how long it takes to translate the stuff, doesn’t it. I have translated some speeches that I suspect were for the EU and although the rate was not high, it was high for what those speeches involved – don’t know what the end rate was. At all events, the hourly income was very high, because after years of giving practice for interpreting classes and exams, I know what speeches sound like and can do them quickly. Anyway, if you enter a competition as a freelance for the EU, you set your own rates. Of course, if those rates are too high, they won’t offer you work until they have tried out cheaper translators (I presume, but I’ve never done it).

    Do you use Trados for your IASs? I imagine the legislation uses a translation memory in-house. Someone referred to older EU translators refusing to use Trados, but I can’t remember who that was.

  13. It was me who referred to older EU translators refusing to use Trados, I think. It’s probably a generational thing.

    Yes, we use Trados for the IAS/IFRS translations. It simply wouldn’t be possible to cope with these translations without using a translation memory application. The IASCF opted for Trados, so that’s the system in use. As well as 100% and fuzzy matches, we’ve found it particularly useful to set concordance to 30%. I’m sure you can imagine that having a TM database for the IASs/IFRSs in 21 languages is an extremely valuable asset!

    Speeches: can’t say I’ve ever done any for the EU, but I do translate speeches for several prominent CEOs of DAX companies. Apart from the AGM speeches, they’re normally quite fun. The EU-related work I do myself tends to be rewriting/editing documents submitted for the legislative process, e.g. for the new Investment Services Directive. I’m always astonished how much bad English gets through to the final version – Robin Stocks had an item on this topic in his blog earlier this year.

  14. Do you know what item that was? I will have to look. What kind of bad English – grammar, syntax etc. or specialist terminology?

  15. Margaret,

    I think it was around mid-May, and might have been to do with the Takeover Directive.

  16. Thanks, Robin. I found it on May 13th (Google syntax: takeover site: (no final slash!)

    Surely Durchgriff is ‘piercing the veil’? I suppose they wouldn’t like that. (I haven’t investigated closely, however).

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