RIGA - Since joining the EU last year, Latvia has been scrambling to find enough translators and interpreters to do the difficult work of transforming key documents and laws into the national language. Yet the problem doesn't stop at state borders. After the EU adopted 10 new members in 2004, pushing its official language count up to 20, the world's largest trading union is a bona fide tower of Babel.
Worse, the situation in individual countries varies tremendously, with smaller countries often failing to keep up with the deluge of material needing translation. Latvia's shortage is particularly acute, and the country has had significant difficulties translating the European Constitutional Treaty.
Latvia is one of three member states struggling to fill needed positions in the European Parliament, Commission and judiciary. In fact, the situation here is even worse than on Malta, which has two official languages, officials say.
"The situation is very difficult," said Konrad Fuhrmann, head of the Directorate General of Translation's field office, a division of the European Commission.
Every member state has the right to receive information from the EU in their national language, necessitating the need for huge investments in translators and interpreters. Costs are expected to run well over $1 billion.
What's more, old member states are also increasing their national languages. Ireland recently saw Gaelic accepted as an official working language of the EU, which alone reportedly costs some 3.5 million euros.
According to data from last September, the EU held competitions for 135 translators. Only 88 people took part, and of those a mere 44 were hired. For interpreters, only eight candidates were kept after 15 competed for 40 spots. However, these jobs are so well paid in EU institutions that translation professors are even leaving to take up the positions, according to Fuhrmann.
In Latvia, part of the problem stems from the fact that the Soviet Union lacked a strong education system for translators and interpreters. Only with Latvia's recent EU accession has a number of well-paying job opportunities opened up for translators. The University of Latvia and Ventspils University College offer most of the professional training in this field.
Only a university degree is required to apply for a translating position.
Fuhrmann suggested that Latvia might want to offer free spaces in university translation courses.
Many of Latvia's translators and interpreters are proficient in German and English 's two of three working languages at the European Commission 's but few are qualified for French, the third one.
Still, the situation has become so desperate that the date of the next competition has been extended. More competitions will likely be introduced in the future to fill gaps.
Meanwhile, the ministry favors creating a database that would be open to translators and interpreters in the EU and those back home, ensuring that key terms are uniformly translated.
Professor Andrejs Veisbergs, head of the contrastive linguistics department at the University of Latvia, said that the coming competition would need at least 80 to 100 participants to fill existing needs. Veisbergs, who is also a freelance interpreter for the EU, said he believes the problem will likely be solved in the next five years.
Alda Vanaga, director of the European Union coordination department at the Foreign Ministry, said there was a case where a Latvian minister at the European Council was not able to speak in Latvian due to a lack of translators. He only discovered that there were no translators when he began to speak, and so he had to switch to another EU language.
The problem predominantly lies with French. While there are some Latvian translators capable of interpreting French to Latvian, there is not one that serve the opposite need. Therefore, the interpretation must be relayed through several languages, causing significant delay.
The translation of important texts has also been bedeviled with errors and mistakes. When the Constitutional Treaty was recently translated into Latvian, the document, which ran hundreds of pages, contained just as many errors 's many of them serious.
Not all of the document's mistakes were corrected in time, but Parliament ratified the constitution regardless. This was due partly to a lack of editors and proofreaders, Veisbergs said, adding that translation mistakes are normal. Correcting them requires an efficient control system, he said.
"It's for the good of the language," Veisbergs said of all EU translations. Yet the problem, he said, can only be corrected by an influx of qualified workers.