Recently the European Commission announced that it is facing a shortage of translators for a range of language combinations. This shortage is particularly acute in the English language department which is expected to lose 20% of its staff by 2015 through retirement.
Many translators who were recruited during the 1970s, when the UK joined the European Economic Community, are now reaching retirement age, but there are not enough linguists with the necessary skills or experience to replace them.
With the addition of 12 official languages since 2004, the number of documents in need of translation has grown exponentially. EU citizens and national authorities have the right to submit documents, questions and complaints in any of the 23 official languages of the European Union. To keep the translation costs down, officials sometimes use a “bridge-language” to communicate with stakeholders. English has grown into this role, as it is the language most widely spoken by the new generation of officials and the first foreign language taught in most schools within the EU. As a result, the last five years have seen a 45% increase in demand for translation into English. In 2008, the number of pages translated into English was a mind-numbing 188,034 pages.
Recent recruitment drives for English-language translators have been largely disappointing. In both 2005 and 2007, less than 50% of the target number of successful candidates was reached and in 2007, only 24 successful candidates were available for recruitment to the EU Institutions involved. The target was 70.
The limited range of languages on offer is a further problem for the Directorate-General for Translation. Most candidates offer either French, German, Spanish or Italian, but less common languages such as the Baltic languages – Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian – are also in high demand.
Whether the shortage of English mother tongue translators is due to a general decline in students studying foreign languages, a poor standard of teaching or a lack of interest in the profession as a whole, will doubtless continue to be debated in the press. In the meantime, the Directorate-General for Translation is stepping up its recruitment drive in conjunction with the National Centre for Languages (CILT) and educational institutions, and is confident all departments will eventually be properly staffed.