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EU Legislation delayed due to translation backlog

EU Legislation delayed due to translation backlog

In 1957, Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany signed the Treaty of Rome. This treaty created the European Economic Community (EEC) which later evolved into the European Union (EU).

At the inception of the EEC, the community boasted just four official languages - Dutch, French, German and Italian. But the EU now has 27 members and 24 official languages.

EU translation backlog

All EU documentation and legislation must be translated into all 24 official languages. The EU’s Directorate-General for Translation is one of the largest employers of its kind in the world and employs 600 translators.

There are 552 possible language pairs for the translators to tackle, a near-impossible task. For this reason, much of the work is completed by translating documents that are themselves translations.

Unfortunately, the increase in delays due to the enormous workload has become problematic and could become more so in the near future.

Delays in translation

EU translation backlog

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has resulted in numerous adverse effects across Europe including huge rises in energy costs, energy shortages, grain shortages and the slowing of economic growth.

The war has also necessitated the formulation of many complicated proposals by the European Commission, all of which require translation. Translators were already under pressure due to the huge volume of work generated by proposals to combat climate change. They have also been kept busy translating documentation related to the planned proposals to reform the single market.

Several pieces of EU legislation have been delayed because it is taking so long to translate the relevant documents. All legislation must be translated into the 24 official languages before it can enter the final stages of negotiation.

Around 200 pieces of legislation currently cannot be debated or voted upon due to delays in translation. There are fears that there will not be sufficient time to approve much of this legislation before the EU parliamentary elections in 2024.

It is now common for reforms and revisions to EU laws to be adopted by courts long before all translations have been completed.

The EU is often criticised for dragging its feet and it seems that delays in translation are one of the primary reasons why the process of passing legislation is so terribly slow.

New official EU languages?

With the EU’s translation services already being under significant pressure, the last thing the Directorate-General for Translation needs are more languages to deal with.

But the number of EU official languages could be about to grow.

Spain’s Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, wants Basque, Galician and Catalan to be added to the EU’s list of official languages.

EU translation backlog

Were his wishes to be granted, EU translators would be swamped with additional work. Not only would they need to translate all future documentation into three additional languages, they would also be forced to tackle a mountain of existing material. All EU Laws, international treaties and decisions from the European Commission from the past 60 years would require translation into the three languages. This would amount to hundreds of thousands of pages.

The enormity of the task is demonstrated by the length of time it took to translate documents following the inclusion of Irish as an official language in 2007. The process wasn’t completed until 2022, partly because it proved so hard to find enough competent personnel. The same issue would surely arise with Basque, Galician and Catalan.

According to the EC, it takes 30 days to translate 100 pages of legislation. In 2021, the commission produced 2.77 million translated pages.

Spain may be facing an uphill battle in persuading EU members that adding three new official languages would be worthwhile.

Catalan, Basque and Galician are official languages in Spain. But in each of the regions where these languages are spoken, Spanish is more widely spoken. It might prove difficult to argue that it is necessary to translate EU documentation into the three additional languages.

Could further languages be added?

EU translation backlog

Should there be new members of the EU in the future, there will be additions to the list of official languages. There are currently eight recognised candidates for membership of the European Union: Turkey, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, Moldova, Ukraine, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

If all eight countries were to join the EU, it is likely that the list of official languages would be expanded to include seven new languages and not eight. This is because Moldovan is essentially the same as Romanian which is already an official language of the EU.

Perhaps the Directorate-General for Translation is rather happier about Brexit than the rest of the EU. If the UK had remained members of the EU, it was possible that Wales would have requested that Welsh became an official languageof the union.

As 287 languages are spoken across Europe, there could be serious issues ahead for EU translators!

Translating Europe

The EU is struggling to cope with the volume of material to be translated and is acutely aware of the importance of translation services. In 2014, the European Commission launched “Translating Europe”, a project designed to bring together translation stakeholders including universities, the language industry and professional associations.

Translating Europe aims to unite stakeholders, to enhance the visibility of the role of translation and to promote good practices. A yearly conference, the Translating Europe Forum (TEF), is held and this year will take place in Brussels, 8-10 November. The TEF 2023 will focus on how to achieve excellence in translation.

Maybe the conference agenda should also include a discussion regarding sourcing translators or translation services for the EU.

EU translation backlog



James Myatt

4 min read

Sep 7, 2023



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