(A translation of an article by Arnaud Leparmentier in the 4/18/04 edition of Le Monde)
Frustrated, Sandra Kalniete, catches her breath. She offers the following excuse: “I’m having trouble because I’m not speaking my native language.” Yet, speaking before the European deputies on Tuesday April 13, Lithuania’s representative had originally begun by expressing herself in Lithuanian.
Officially, nothing could be more normal. The European Parliament had embraced the saying of Umberto Eco: Europe’s language is that of translation. Moreover, the EU intends to translate its debates into the 20 languages of the enlarged Union.
However, problems have arisen from the very beginning. “We are henceforth working in 20 languages. Please do not jump into a discussion too quickly; otherwise there will not be enough time for the interpreters to do their job,” stated the session’s president—the Frenchman Joseph Daul. After a couple of minutes, the plan had fallen apart. The Eurodeputies’ questions were not directly translated from one language to another—a task that would have required 380 combinations (Finnish-Portuguese, Italian-Czech, Polish-Slovenian, etc.). Instead, people communicated via a central language, which was generally English or French. And in the course of the translations, the deputies lost the gist of highly technical subjects: agricultural and marine policies. In any case, the communications were too fast for Ms. Kalniete, and several speakers had to be asked to repeat slowly their questions. “I’m not sure that I understood the translation,” said the Lithuanian. She eventually gave up. After having spoken two words in French, she used English.
Amidst this free-for-all, several Eurodeputies also gave up their native tongues, such as the Austrian Hannes Swoboda, in order to communicate directly in English. However English is not a panacea, as Ms. Kalniete’s difficulties reveal. Her impoverished Esperanto bore, at best, a distant relationship with the language of Shakespeare. This example suggests the challenges that the European Union faces now that it must function in 20 languages.
“We cannot work like this. We must have the courage to admit that we must work with only six or seven languages—this is the only way of saving the French language. Otherwise, English will be dominant everywhere,” noted the French Eurodeputy, Alain Lamassoure, in the European Parliament’s chambers. The Hungarian representative, Peter Balazs, agrees. Speaking after Ms. Kalniete, he was careful—after having expressed himself in his native tongue—to speak in flawless French, German and English—the three working languages of the Commission and of the ambassadors to Brussels.
This trilingual arrangement prevails during informal meetings among European ministers, but it is becoming less frequent. The rules were, of course, respected during the informal meetings of Ministers of European Affairs in Ireland, from April 6 to 8—a meeting dedicated to communication in Europe and to which several journalists were invited. In the assembly hall, isolated in three cubicles, the interpreters did their work—but barely anyone used their services. Only the French minister Claudie Haigneré had her headphones on. One speaker after another used English.
At the end of the day, when a journalist from Le Monde, dared to use his own language, most of the audience members dove for their headphones. Linguistic militancy has its limits and, during the general discussion, the Frenchman reverted, like everyone else, into English. The next day, the French commissioner, Pascal Lamy, chose English when Irish schoolchildren were invited to listen to the debates.
As soon as one leaves the ministerial meeting, English imposes itself even more forcefully. Of course, the Europhiles and other diplomats—who are often inter-married and are open to European culture—are enviable polyglots. But with the EU’s enlargement, English is basically the only language that they all have in common. Thus, during a dinner offered by the Irish president, the French, British and German guests at one table all spoke French, German and English—an arrangement that allowed them to express themselves in their native tongues or—out of courtesy—in the language of their interlocutor. However the Macedonians had also been invited, and the conversation necessarily gravitated towards English.
Lastly, the EU’s enlargement is toppling one of the last, non-Anglophone bastions: the European Commission. German, which is spoken by 100 million Europeans, is too difficult of a language to become a common language. French, which benefited from Brussels’s francophone environment, is quickly losing ground since Sweden, Austria and Finland joined the Union in 1995 and rejected French. This explains why, in 1997, 40% of documents were originally written in French. This figures is now less than 30%.
Younger generations of Europeans from the Mediterranean areas increasingly favor English. The government officials from Eastern Europe are more likely to have studies at Harvard or at Oxford than at the Sorbonne. And the final blow is still around the corner. New commissioners have trouble finding spokespeople that speak their languages…Pascal Lamy’s office, which worked in French, uses English because the commissioner that Lamy is supposed to chaperone—the Pole Danuta Hübner—does not speak French.
French members of the Commission should also be blamed for the French language’s decline. A portion of them believed that France’s dominant position would be eternal, and they allowed themselves—for years—to speak quickly at meetings in a language that was familiar to them but difficult for others to understand. Italian and Spanish were not given the least consideration. Other French representatives are infatuated with the Anglo-Saxon model, like the young bureaucrat who thought it would be useful to give a press conference in English on the reform of the Union’s common agricultural policy, even though custom dictated that he speak in his native tongue. “The French purposely do not use French because they want to show off that they can write directly and flawlessly in English,” fumed one French bureaucrat.
It is now considered “old-fashioned” to defend the usage of French in the European Commission. A high-placed European and francophone commissioner from Belgium stated that he wanted to support the French model (for example, on social policies) against the Anglo-Saxon one, but refused to be identified in this piece for fear of being considered one of the “ayatollahs” of the French-speaking world. .
Given these developments, the enlarged EU will not be Babel. It has found its lingua franca: English.