The New Europe: A Boom Market For Linguists

My neighbor, Joe Morgan, who's English, is the perfect European, at least for now. He speaks all nine official languages of the 12-nation European Union, although he admits that he sometimes has to look up the odd Greek term in his Greek-German lexicon.

Back in the States, where monoglots rule, a person might be viewed as a little weird if he could discuss plumbing in Danish or digestive problems in Portuguese, as Morgan can. But here in the EU's unofficial capital, Joe and thousands like him are held in awe. In fact, they're in demand, which is reflected in their pay. EU staff translators and interpreters begin at $47,300 and top out at $147,700 for someone in Morgan's league. Freelancers get a tax-free $260 a day from EU institutions or a taxable $520 per day from business clients.

The recent membership growth of the European Union and the business spawned by its 15-month-old single market are fueling a boom in multilingual services. Each day in Brussels, Luxembourg, Strasbourg, and elsewhere across the Continent, more than 3,000 interpreters and translators are paid to decipher the babel.

From glassed-in booths at the European Parliament's quarters in Brussels or Strasbourg or in the press-briefing room of the European Commission, the EU's administrative arm, they provide "simultaneous and continuous" versions of remarks given in English, French, German, Italian, Danish, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, and Greek. Morgan and his fellow translators deal only in documents, creating nine official versions of everything from press releases to treaties. Schooled as a solicitor, Morgan works with legal stuff only, such as the treaties needed to pin down the rights and duties of Sweden, Finland, Austria (and maybe Norway) when they join the EU next year.

Such work could mean that Morgan, 46, will soon have to work in Swedish or Norwegian. That wouldn't be too much of a stretch, he says. Both are Germanic languages. Finnish, though, could be sticky: It's unrelated to any other language but Estonian.

The need for translators and interpreters will grow even more this year as nine new EU agencies, dealing with everything from the environment to drugs, open their doors. A translation center employing 250 persons will open to serve them. This sort of development can't go on forever, some think. "As the EU gets bigger, they will have to reduce the number of official languages," warns Pina Grody, 35, a freelancer who works for the commission and the Parliament. "Otherwise it will be a zoo."

ENGLISH, PLEASE. There are some signs that the EU recognizes the potential for linguistic gridlock. A Hungarian friend of mine says EU officials have already broached the possibility that while other EU languages might be translated into Hungarian by native Hungarians, Hungarian itself might only be translated into some of the more common EU languages, such as French, German, and English.

There is some precedent: Irish (Gaelic) is an official language of Ireland. But the EU persuaded Ireland to get by in English when it became a member. And new EU agencies also will use just some official languages because the demand for interpreters and translators has outstripped available talent. The new EU trademark office in Spain, for example, has adopted a rule that one must defend any negative trademark ruling in English, French, Spanish, Italian, or German. Likewise, the European Police Office (Europol), based in The Hague, is trying to communicate in English only. Despite such limits, no one foresees any lessening of the interpreter and translator workload.

This presents a problem: Recruiting more linguists isn't like dealing with a shortage of bus drivers. "I think speaking languages, like being good at music, writing, or numbers, is a talent," says Grody, who has EU and business clients. "I find it easy, but I don't know why." Having some innate ability to mimic is part of it. "But you also need an openness to foreign things and an interest in another country's culture if you hope to master its language," she says.

Language schools are relieving some of the shortage. But demand keeps rising as business keeps crossing borders. Companies such as Dutch giant Philips Electronics and DHL Worldwide Express try to use English as their corporate language worldwide. Philips Chief Executive Jan D. Timmer, who is Dutch, even uses English to negotiate. But at press conferences, Philips finds it necessary to pay a permanent staff of 12 to translate Timmer's remarks, made in Dutch and English, into German and French. On a less formal level, DHL staffers in 213 countries speak 22 languages. No employee is a full-time translator, but "If we need something translated, we send it off to one of our countries by e-mail, and a short while later it's back," says CEO L. Patrick Lupo.

SCAPEGOAT? Business attracts good linguists, but Europe's top tongues are drawn to the EU, where the pay--and the standards--are highest. To crack that exclusive club, an aspirant must pass a concours, a devilishly difficult written and oral exam that requires knowledge of technical terms as well as details about the culture of the relevant country.

Once in, though, interpreters find multilingual life isn't always glamorous. The far-flung nature of EU meetings keeps translators on the road half the time. Interpreters can also find themselves convenient scapegoats. "If something goes wrong, you can always blame the interpreter," says Grody. The mental strain is no joke, either. Even with rest breaks, mistakes happen. One of the most infamous involved a harried interpreter who heard the phrase "massive perturbation" in French but translated it into English as "passive masturbation."