/Europe from behind the glass

Europe from behind the glass


There are a theoretical 506 possible language combinations in the EU. Photo source: kwintessential.co.uk

BRUSSELS – The EU is running out of Dutch interpreters. If nothing is done, many Dutch interpreting booths might by 2020  remain silent.

By Tim Hersevoort

Nine-thirty in the morning. The big conference room in the Albert Borschette conference center in the heart of Brussels’ European Quarter slowly fills with people. Men in suits and well-dressed women chat a bit before taking a seat at one of the six long dark brown tables, set up in a ‘three opposing three’ arrangement.

On both sides behind the last table interpreters are settling down behind the glass of their interpreting booths, patiently waiting for the chairman to start the meeting. After a polite tap on his glass, the French bonjour changes via the omnipresent headphones into the Dutch goedemorgen. Interpreter Marijke van Eeghem (57) sounds calm and resolute while translating the French words and sentences into Dutch. Without hesitation, without dawdle. Fluent, almost as if she herself is addressing the entire conference room.

“But it’s much more difficult than it seems,” says Van Eeghem, who has been interpreting for the EU for almost 36 years. “Let’s say it’s a kind of gift. Some people can do it, some people can’t. And if you can’t, you will never be able to do so.”

Flemish born Van Eeghem, who speaks Dutch, French, English, Italian, Spanish and German, emphasizes that it’s a stressful job. “You sometimes for example have to deal with very challenging financial or technical issues, and you have to translate it perfectly. You constantly have to remain focused, which you’ll notice in the evening, when after coming home you can feel exhausted.”

“But it’s also great fun,” she adds. “The variation between subjects you have to cover every day makes it exciting. Most interpreters really love their job.”


Yet Van Eeghem seems to be of a dying breed. Dutch interpreters in the EU are becoming scarce and if nothing is done, the current Dutch interpreting staff might be cut in half by 2020.

“Many interpreters were hired in the seventies and eighties,” says Annechiene De Mey–van Ree, head of the Dutch interpreting unit of the European Commission, “and they will retire in the coming decade. That  causes a possible future shortage of Dutch interpreters.”

And it’s not only quantity that is under pressure, but also quality explains De Mey–van Ree. “In the coming ten years we will also lose a lot experienced staff. If we don’t find new interpreters now, they will leave a large gap.”

To counter the trend, the Commission in September this year started a media campaign to attract new interpreters via among others a YouTube clip. De Mey–van Ree: “It’s too early to say, but hopefully this way we can attract young people to come work here.”

‘We hardly worked today’

“Interpreting is a kind of gift,” says EU-interpreter Marijke van Eeghem.

The Dutch European Commission unit employs 36 full-time interpreters and uses around 55 freelancers on a regular bases, who also work in among others The Council of Ministers and the European Council. In total, there are around 600 full-time interpreters, with another 300 to 400 regular freelancers, covering 23 languages and a theoretical 506 possible language combinations. They work at around 50 to 60 meetings a day, with a total cost of 130 million euros in 2010.

These staggering numbers raise the question whether it might be a good idea to work with a limited number of important main languages. But according to De Mey–van Ree, this is unwise. “It will not improve communication. People sometimes aren’t able to put nuances in foreign languages, as they can do in their own. Interpreters allow these people to express themselves properly in their mother tongue”

Marijke van Eeghem agrees. “People sometimes speak English very poorly. A lot of mistakes are made.” She laughs. “I remember a Dutch chairman once saying that it was a good time to stop the meeting because they had hardly worked today, when he actually meant to say that they did work hard. In the interpreting booths we couldn’t stop laughing, but the people on the floor didn’t understand it at all.”


So what makes a good interpreter? Van Eeghem: “It’s very important that you can express yourself calmly. If you are insecure or stressed, than the person who is listening to you will be too.”

An interpreter also has to be strong and confident. Insults for example also need to be translated, as was the case a couple of years ago, when Italian prime-minister Silvio Berlusconi recommended German Member of European Parliament Martin Schulz for a role as a concentration camp supervisor in a movie. “You can’t by yourself apply censorship,” Van Eeghem says.

But the most important value of an interpreter might be passion. As Van Eeghem explains: “It’s impossible for me to imagine someone interpreting who doesn’t enjoy doing so.”


For more information on interpreting in the EU, click here (Dutch).