A new language question for the Maltese: interpreters in the EP

For the European Parliament’s director-general for interpretation Agnieszka Walter-Drop, making sure Malta can produce high-quality interpreters for the EP is part of her mission

EP’s director-general for interpretation Agnieszka Walter-Drop
EP’s director-general for interpretation Agnieszka Walter-Drop

The European Parliament is a multilingual environment with 24 languages used by staff and translators.

It is at the core of the EU as a political project that multilingualism allows all EU citizens to follow the work of their democratic representatives in any of the official languages.

Language representation, says the EP’s Director-General for interpretation Agnieszka Walter-Drop, is a principle, something that underlines the sense of belonging of EU Member States to the project. “It was the first ever regulation of the European community – the official languages – in 1958; back then it was four, today it is 24.”

This is Walter-Drop’s mission: ensuring that the principle of the official languages being used is fully respected and employed. Which is why Walter-Drop also has a problem: a shortage of Maltese-language interpreters, the lack of which has been almost politicised between Malta’s two parties in the discussion about who, or what, is responsible for the dearth of interpreters in the European Parliament booths.

For now, the Maltese and Irish languages are subject to a derogation from the EP rule that interpretation should be available for all parliamentary activities. Maltese interpretation is always provided in the Parliament’s plenary sessions and in some committee meetings and political group meetings. However, more Maltese interpretation is needed. The concern for the Maltese language is clear, says Walter-Drop, who wants to ensure that a national effort is also underway to produce high-quality interpreters who are ready to take up the Brussels career option as a long-term investment.

Walter-Drop is herself part and parcel of the European project. She was chief of staff of the chief negotiator in the Polish negotiating team for EU accession, like Malta an entrant back in 2004. Since then, she has experienced the 20-year development of the ‘new’ Union, as part and parcel of its extensive civil service.

“Having been part of the accession process, 20 years on I can see where we are as a country, and where Malta is. It’s been a success for all countries. But it’s also a moment when there’s also a lot of public attention as to how Europe works – our presence as Member States and citizens in EU policymaking,” she says while in Malta, where she held meetings with University of Malta staff to monitor the progress in encouraging more interpretation graduates to embark on a career in Brussels..

Malta has been hit by a dearth of interpreters who are qualified enough to make the grade in Brussels and a lack of candidates who can be recruited as fully-fledged staff members. Currently, the Maltese language is serviced by freelancers, some of whom do not live in Brussels or even in Malta. The freelance situation has allowed the EP’s interpretation service to make efficient use of the Maltese interpretation effort: with six MEPs present in fewer committees and other configurations outside the plenary, a team of 22 freelancers can be managed and tailored to specific interpretation needs.


But the interpretation service goes further: staff members work on other support services, training the new generation of interpreters, preparing outreach campaigns, as well as organising meetings, booking facilities and managing some 100 meeting rooms, conference missions, remote participation… it’s a combined effort. “With six Maltese MEPs, we need interpreters for the plenary sessions, the biggest political groups – EPP and S&D – and other legislative activity. So we have a problem because we cannot recruit enough people to cover this demand. On top of that, we going to have two interpreters retiring, so recruitment is a question of sustainability,” Walter-Drop says.

While the University of Malta is actively enrolling students to embark on the demanding career of an interpreter, the road from graduation to Brussels is not always always a smooth one.

“We must help young people understand their potential,” Walter-Drop says. “This is one of the messages we want to convey: people who want to become interpreters need to be very open and flexible. They need to be able to work under stress, have a capacity to understand complex situations, and process information quickly.

“You need to have an interest in many subjects and curiosity. A very specific quality is the ability to understand not only the language, but also the cultural context. For example, in translation, you can check some terms. In interpretation, you need to have it at your fingertips.”

This challenge is not a small one: if university graduates cannot match up to the standards that Brussels requires when it comes to interpretation, as well as being au fait with the cultural context of the MEPs they are interpreting for, accessing this career may be harder than expected.

“We are working with universities to find a way to talk about this career. There are many challenges in this work, but for many people, this can be attractive. You can attract people who want to contribute to something which is important for European society, who want to work in an international environment, who want to be part of the European institutions. It requires a lot of investment in education, practice, and training. We are ready to support this,” Walter-Drop says.

From a language point of view, it means that the better candidates for these Brussels postings tend to be interpreters whose understanding of language goes beyond mere ‘translation’.

“You need to be able to listen carefully and understand,” Walter-Drop says. “You need to follow the speaker and understand the context. You need to have the capacity to put yourself in the shoes of the speaker. This requires a certain quality of empathy and understanding of the speaker’s intentions. It’s about conveying not only the words but the meaning behind them. It’s not about the literal translation. It’s about getting across the message, the meaning, and intent. You need to be able to capture the tone and the emotions. This is a very demanding and specific skill. But it can be very rewarding.”

Walter-Drop insists that ensuring the future of Maltese as a language that is readily available for interpretation is also a matter that goes to the core of European identity and EU membership.

“Through the language, your status and influence as a Member State are assured. Because language is where your identity lies, and we see it with other languages as well as Maltese. Even though the MEPs can express themselves very well in English – and sometimes there are areas where English is prevalent and even necessary, like economy policy – the issue of having your language present at the European level is key to gaining the acceptance of the population. It’s confirmation of your full-fledged status as a member of the European Union.”

And this influence has indeed been crucial in the last two decades, where translators have engineered a new lexicon of European terminology and legislative language. However, Walter-Drop adds there is also the impetus that a language has on the subject matter, when certain policy matters can be spoken about in a native language.

“In Malta, where English tends to be common currency, the element of status is not something to be taken lightly.” It is important for politicians to have interpreters when they speak about certain issues, just like for example, hospital patients feel more comfortable expressing themselves in Maltese in hospitals. Interpreters help EU citizens overcome these linguistic barriers and so it is a demanding but also very enriching profession.

“The work our interpreters do helps create understanding between MEPs in the legislative process, and in the debate on important issues of common interest. It reaches out to citizens. And while not everything can be listened to and followed, there is this possibility, for NGOs or people interested in what is happening at the European level, to follow it in their language.”

Ewropej Funded by the European Union

This article is part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. This article reflects only the author’s view. The action was co-financed by the European Union in the frame of the European Parliament's grant programme in the field of communication. The European Parliament was not involved in its preparation and is, in no case, responsible for or bound by the information or opinions expressed in the context of this action. In accordance with applicable law, the authors, interviewed people, publishers or programme broadcasters are solely responsible. The European Parliament can also not be held liable for direct or indirect damage that may result from the implementation of the action.

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