January 01, 2007

Happy New Year unless you're an EU bureaucrat

Happy New Year, unless you're a bureaucrat working for the European Union (EU), in which case, commiserations. Now that Bulgarian, Romanian, and Irish have been (as of today) added to the list of official languages of the EU, the usual formula (T = n2 - n) yields a total of (T = 232 - 23 = 506 distinct types of interpreter or translator needed: one for each cell of a 23 by 23 matrix, minus the 23 cells down the diagonal (since no one needs a French-to-French translator, except perhaps in order to understand Derrida, but let's ignore bad philosophy here).

The full list of languages is given at the end of this post, so that those who think they could write them all down can give that a try. I've already given you 3, so you only need to name the others; the maximum possible score for you glottodemography hobbyists is 20 out of 20. A prize is offered for those who get the maximum score: a free subscription to Language Log for the whole of 2007.

The value of the number T can be reduced if you care to assume that anyone who can handle Bulgarian to Irish can also do Irish to Bulgarian, but I have been told this symmetry assumption is typically false, at least for interpreters. If you assume symmetry, you can divide 506 by 2 to get 253 types (the Wikipedia article gives this number). But then again, if you assume asymmetry and also think real-time interpreting is so different from off-line document translation that the two kinds of task would need entirely different types of polyglot, then there may be as many as 1012 different types of linguistic specialist needed in principle to run the EU. By any of these measures, it is clear that the EU needs a massively expensive interpreting and translating bureaucracy, probably more cumbersome and expensive than can possibly be afforded.

As The Economist recently pointed out, what is probably going to happen, paradoxically, is that diversity of language use in the EU will decrease. If there were just two countries in the EU, say France and Germany, it would become de rigueur (may I use French?) for nearly everyone to speak French and German, and one would be embarrassed not to; but with 27 countries now, several of them multilingual, making it all but impossible that anyone could really follow legislative affairs in even a modest percentage of the languages, there will be a drift toward use of a lingua franca, and the most likely thing is that the lingua franca will be English. There won't be Bulgarian-Irish and Irish-Bulgarian translation along with English-Irish, Irish-English, Bulgarian-English, and English-Bulgarian to serve the Bulgarian, English, and Irish speakers, but only the last four of those pairs, if and when needed. (The actual probability of EU Members of Parliament or officials of the Brussels bureaucracy turning up who speak, say, Irish but not English is of course, close to zero; and something similar could probably be said about Maltese, or Danish.)

If all that is needed is people to translate various documents into and out of English, the number of types of linguistic specialist needed (assuming asymmetry, as before) falls to (23 - 1) × 2 = 44 distinct types, which is a bit closer to the realm of possibility.

And the real number needed reduces yet more when one realizes that the relevant officials of many European countries are often excellent at English and will not need to wait for translated documents. Bill Poser pointed out here that a UN survey to see what language different countries preferred to get their official correspondence in, out of the 6 official languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish), is said to have produced the results: 130 for English, 36 for French, 19 for Spanish, 0 for Arabic, 0 for Chinese, and 0 for Russian. If this is true, it must mean that more than a dozen countries voted against getting documents in their own national language. Go figure that one out! (My guess: better to have the same English text that other countries are using for the working meetings than to use a translation and then have to back-translate at some points to make sure that what you were given, and no one else is using, is accurate.)

Now for the quiz answer: here is the full list of 23 official languages of the EU as of today:


Update: No Happy New Year from Working Languages, where a very irritable post insists that in practice it's very different. The above "calculates, without for some reason attempting to find out what the actual situation is," it says; but in reality, because of multiple competences among translators and chaining (translate A to B and then B to C), about 70 types of specialist suffices, it says. In the first version of this post I mentioned in passing (following an article in The Economist) that only English, French, and German were working languages; but there is dispute about this: apparently all of the languages are working languages, at least in principle, so I took that statement out.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 1, 2007 11:17 AM