Czech Interpreters for the EU

Have you ever wondered how the 15 member countries of the European Union communicate with one another if 11 national languages are spoken in them? Yes, of course, they need many interpreters. Is the Czech Republic prepared to join the EU in this respect too? Pavla Horakova looked deeper into the matter.

A couple of weeks ago, the European Commission issued its annual Report on the Czech Republic's progress towards accession to the European Union. The report ranks and analyses the preparedness of individual candidate countries for EU membership. Among the praise, criticism, recommendations and warnings, one could easily overlook one short sentence. It says: "Due attention must also be given to training of conference interpreters." But is due attention indeed being paid to the education and training of interpreters and will the country's voice be heard in Brussels?

The European Union's policy is "multilingualism", the Union considers linguistic diversity as something that must be safeguarded. Thanks to that every member country can communicate in its own language in the European institutions. Today there are 11 official languages. With the accession of the current candidate states, the number will rise even higher, and so will the number of interpreters needed to mediate communication between all EU members. Tony Scott is a senior interpreter working at the Joint Interpreting and Conference Service in Brussels.

"Our service has 500 staff interpreters and we on top of that number employ between 200 and 300 freelance interpreters every day, so about 800 a day, five days a week. It's been calculated that for the new languages of the candidate countries we will need at least 80 interpreters every day, so 80 for Czech, but we think that in reality the number will be greater than that."

But it's not just a question of quantity - quality also matters in Brussels. I wondered what it takes to qualify for the job of an EU interpreter.

"The requirements are first of all that you must have a university degree of any type, any description, not necessarily a language degree. You must, of course, know languages and very importantly, you must love communicating, conveying a message and you need quite strong nerves as well."

The primary responsibility for training these highly skilled conference interpreters rests with the universities of the candidate countries. The Institute of Translation Studies of Charles University in Prague has been training qualified translators and interpreters since 1963. Ivana Cenkova is head of the interpreting department of the Institute of Translation studies and also the director of the European masters' course in Conference Interpreting in Prague. I asked Ivana Cenkova whether the Institute adjusted its courses to the new demand when the Czech Republic started preparations for joining the EU and whether the Institute is getting any assistance from Czech authorities.

"Our Institute cooperates with the European institutions, namely the Joint Interpreting and Conference Service and the European Parliament. At first, our lecturers used to go to Brussels to watch how interpreting courses were taught there and as early as 1992 we were asked to organize similar 6 or 12-month courses here in Prague. In 1993 we sent offers to a number of Czech institutions, namely the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Education and other ministries participating in the preparations for the accession to the EU. But unfortunately, the ministries' response was that they weren't interested in training their own interpreters, because they employed freelance interpreters working on the Czech market."

While the standard of these interpreters might be quite satisfactory in the Czech environment, it might not be enough for the European institutions.

"Sometimes, unfortunately, the quality on the Czech market is not up to the standard expected on the European market, that is in the European institutions, so sometimes the Czech customers' requirements are not as strict, if indeed the customers know what they should demand from an interpreter."

The efforts to gain assistance from the Czech authorities in the early 1990's failed, so the Institute of Translation Studies launched its own weekend course of conference interpreting while still cooperating with the Joint Interpreting and Conference Service and the European Parliament. In 1998 the Institute was invited to join in a partnership of European universities specializing in conference interpreters' training. These universities joined in a consortium and launched the European Master's course in Conference Interpreting, a 2-term postgraduate course. The consortium now has 14 members, Prague being the first university from Central and Eastern Europe to join. State university education is free of charge in the Czech Republic, but students of the European Masters' have to pay tuition. The course is partly financed by the European Commission and the European Parliament. Brussels also helps out by providing teaching assistance by experienced trainers. With the date of accession approaching, interpreters from Brussels have already started assessing the standard of potential freelance interpreters who will one day join their team. A professional test was recently held in Prague. Tony Scott of the Joint Interpreting and Conference Service was the chairman of the examination board.

"Well, we try to come to each of the candidate countries roughly every 12 months to test potential interpreters for the European institutions. And for instance this week, we've been testing for 5 days here in Prague. Altogether we'll be testing 40 people and so far 5 have passed and we are hoping to get another 2 or 3 tomorrow and then we'll consider that we have a good result. 15 to 20 percent is a good pass rate for our tests."

With such strict demands, will the Czech Republic be able to put together the necessary number of qualified interpreters? Ivana Cenkova again.

"I hope so. Officially the EU already lists 31 Czech freelance interpreters. In November, seven more interpreters passed the EU test for freelance interpreters - that makes 38 altogether. And of course, some of our colleagues might not have applied for the test yet. I hope that by 2004 we will have trained enough new young conference interpreters in the Euromasters' course and also in our regular courses here at the Institute of Translation Studies of Charles university."

So, the view from the Czech Republic is optimistic. What's the view from Brussels? And how does Brussels rate Czech interpreters in comparison with those from other countries?

"A pass rate of 10, 15, maximum 20 percent is considered to be very good and we have achieved that here and so we think Czech interpreters are as good as any others."