How new media revived the shrinking army of interpreters at the European Commission

By Karuna Kumar

“A global shortage of qualified linguists” was one of the profound concerns expressed at a meeting of 76 international language service providers at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris back in June.

The same concerns were echoed in our interview with Ian Andersen, External Communications Adviser at the European Commission’s Directorate-General (DG) for Interpretation.

The challenge

The European Commission, EU’s executive body, had issued a declaration together with over 70 other international and regional organisations calling for more awareness among universities and schools about the learning and career opportunities for interpreters, translators and other skilled language professionals. With a mission to put multilingual communication at the core of community decision-making, Ian Andersen recognizes the greatest challenge for his office in the next ten years is “to replace half of our interpreters in a number of key languages.”

Those who were hired in the early 70’s and early 80’s have worked their way through the system and are seemingly retiring all at once.

Andersen explains, “Over the next 10 years, we will be losing about half of our English interpreters and 40% of our French, Italian, German and Dutch interpreters. So, it is quite a challenge to find people in all these new languages.” The European Commission currently works with over 20 languages.

Quality management

Andersen emphasizes the significance of getting the right people into the job – those who can understand the challenging nature of work and adapt to it. According to Andersen, hundreds of people are tested every year, but very few people (a mere 20%), actually make it to the positions.

“Quality is an essential issue for us. We have regular listen-in reports usually carried out by the head of the unit, which are then compiled and advice is given to the respective interpreters.”

The nature of interpretation is grossly different from translation. Once the product is out there, it cannot be taken back and revised. The element of timeliness makes the job of an interpreter all the more demanding.

The make-up

The structure of the European Commission is complex and has often faced criticism for being highly fragmented. The Commission is divided into departments known as Directorates-General (DG’s); each covering a specific policy area or service, headed by a Director General. Director Generals report to a commissioner appointed by the Member States.

The EU institutions employ a little over 4000 interpreters. There are about 1100 staff interpreters; about 600 for the commission, 400 for the European Parliament and 100 for the European Court of Justice. In addition, there is a joint pool of approximately 3000 freelancers.

New media – the new interface

Using social media as an interface to connect with the new Generation Y and attract talent for the interpreting service, is a big part of Andersen’s communications strategy:

“We took a hard look at who our potential audience is and tried to redesign a campaign that would work. We thought that the kind of people we would be looking for – with an international outlook, knowledge of languages and  a likelihood to study abroad – live on social networking sites. We thought here is the perfect vehicle.”

The interpreting service began using YouTube to create videos and distribute to schools and other institutes in a pursuit to create more awareness.

So what kind of traffic are the videos seeing?

Andersen says, “We made a video for English to European interpretation and it is currently running at 40,000 hits. And our French equivalent is running at almost 30,000 hits.”

While the numbers on YouTube were quite strong, Andersen opted for an even more engaging platform – Facebook. In an effort to use more channels and increase publicity through more socially oriented means, DG interpreting service created a fanbook page, which currently has 10,000 friends. The page is used to engage in a daily dialogue with the visitors via postings of facts about the services, institutions and languages.

Andersen explains:

“When Jacques Delors, a former President of the Commission came to speak in the European Parliament the other day – on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the German unification – we shared the event information on the page and it turned out to be a very popular piece. So the page can be used to post many different things from the very mundane stuff like how many microphones does this service manage to the more technical, historical and political talk about interpretation.”

Facebook – the main vector

Facebook has been the main vector for DG-Interpretation. While Andersen believes that advertising can be a beneficial way to reach out to people and could bring a strong return on investment, he is categorical about the benefits of the viral spread. “If you put a message across and it gathers a million hits, it is nirvana for the social media communicator.”


So while social media efforts are in place, what are the real measurable outcomes?

To this Andersen responds, “We have different problems in different countries. In the UK, there has been a decrease in people who study the languages in the past 10 years. So we have understood that we need to create awareness about us at the pre-University level. In other places, it is important to create awareness at University levels. In terms of real outcomes, the registrations for the two most revered interpreter schools in Paris were up by 140% and 60%. For the best interpreter schools in the UK, we are looking at about a 100% increase in applications.”

Convinced that their efforts are having the right kind of effect on the ground, Andersen is conducting a detailed study on what part of the social media campaign works. His goal is to create a benchmark for pre-campaign awareness.

Technology as a threat

In contemporary times, a fear of technological innovations replacing human resources looms large. The propensity to embrace machines as compared to hiring actual interpreters is sure to hit the industry.

Andersen’s thoughts on the subject?

“Machine translation is great to get a general idea but often we have seen that we take more time to post-edit the machine translation than to translate it correctly in the first place. Text to speech can be simple, where a voice of the computerized program simply reads out the message; the trick is from one language to another language. There can be multiple ambiguities that the machine can process. You need a sensitive human to make a choice as to which of the double or triple layers of meaning make actual sense.”

As an afterthought, he adds, ‘There is also a difficulty of dealing with accents which will be even more difficult for a computer system. I don’t think the generation we are recruiting should be worried at all. It is the next generation that might face this issue.”

The road ahead

With a futuristic outlook, Andersen explains that regional differences and the approach towards language have a profound role to play in deciding the areas where more efforts need to be made.

In France, he says, people are quite interested in their language, and traditional media “took very well to our campaign.” In the UK, there has been less interest from the media but Anderson and his team are looking at Radio 4 programs as a medium to lure more interpreters.

Convinced about the changing dynamics of new media and determined to use them strategically, Andersen is a man with a mission – to motivate Generation Y to help make sure that Europeans working together in the EU will continue to be able to understand each other – even if they do not share a single language.

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