THIS WEEK, Slovak Members of the European Parliament began testing the quality of the interpretation of the union's 19 other official languages. MEPs have the right to speak in their official language and receive interpretation during plenary sittings.
For major languages like English or German, interpretation into Slovak is fast and good. But when interpretation comes from languages like Greek, Swedish, or Danish via bridge languages such as English and German, then there is a strange delay for the Slovak MEPs.
"In the EU, all official languages are equal in theory. In practice, though, some are much more equal than others," said Jozef Reinvart, member of the working group Language Policy in an Integrating Europe, set up by the National Convent on the European Future of Slovakia. Enlargement has increased the EU's population by 20 percent, the number of member states has shot up by 66 percent, and the number of working languages by a full 82 percent. By 2006, with 10 new languages, translation demand should rise to 2.4 million pages a year from 1.3 million.
To meet the EU's translation requirements, the European Commission has about 110 fulltime staff for each new language, including Slovak. Around 40 interpreters, half of whom are freelancers, will be employed by the end of the transition phase in 2006. Prior to all this, the Slovak government had translated some 97,000 pages of EU laws, known as the acquis. The cost of all this translation and interpretation, shared by the Slovak taxpayer, is enormous: some €1.2 billion a year. If you complain, officials are likely to reply that the cost per EU citizen is just over €2, the price of an expensive cup of coffee in Brussels, Paris, or London.
Working as a diplomat, Reinvart has many examples of Slovaks and others losing out due to language. "And due to financial pressure there is even greater pressure, from May 1, on facilities for translation and interpretation into Slovak." With growing numbers of meetings in Brussels, where Slovak officials bargain and defend Slovak interests, the lack of translation and interpretation can be a severe handicap. Reinvart thus wants Slovakia to have an official language policy and, in the long term, even consider a neutral language for the EU, like Esperanto.
Illustrations of this lack of equality range from official European Union websites like www.europa.eu.int that have very few pages in Slovak to application forms that cannot be completed in Slovak. At the end of May, when the commission will host the first webchat after enlargement, Slovak citizens will finally be able to shoot questions to commissioners in Slovak.
But will they get proper replies in their own language? Preparing the webchat for 19 languages has been a technical nightmare, and not only due to the cost of translation. Organisers overlooked the fact that they would need new keyboards for "exotic" languages like Slovak that use diacritics unfamiliar to the alphabets of current members.
"Slovak is not a strong language. Only five million people speak it," said Ján Vajs, general director at the Slovak Chamber of Agriculture and Food. Vajs said Slovak language policy in the EU should make sure that Slovaks do not suffer language discrimination. "If Slovak farmers have to fill out forms or answer questions about their farms in English or German, and won't have the right to use Slovak, then that will be discriminatory."
Vajs also complains about paying for translations into English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish at EU agricultural organisations like Copa and Cogeca: "There's no translation into Slovak but we still have to pay." For Vajs, English in the EU is like Russian in the Soviet era - the dominant language of a dominant power.
"The Slovak-English relationship is absolutely different from that between the Slovak and Russian languages in the communist past," said Ivo Samson, senior research fellow at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association. "Russian was the occupying superpower's instrument of supranational domination in political and military spheres. English was imposed on Slovakia - and other small nations in central Europe - by the market economy."
"We should focus on preserving smaller languages like Slovak so that they are not stunted by the major languages like French and German," said Samson. He stresses the importance of language for national identity and European integration: "English will never be uncontested. Small nations like Slovakia fear a resolution will be made against Slovak. Perhaps there should be a neutral non-national language like neo-Latin, Esperanto, or some other new language. The EU cannot eternally avoid this question."