Multilingualism – a challenge for the EU Agencies Network

On 30 September 2021, the Translation Centre hosted the workshop ‘Multilingualism – a challenge for the EU Agencies Network’ under the umbrella of the EU Agencies’ Heads of Communication and Information Network (HCIN). A total of 68 representatives from 28 EU agencies, joint undertakings and the Shared Support Office of the EU Agencies Network attended this half-day event, which took place online due to the COVID 19 pandemic. Ms Emily O’Reilly, the European Ombudsman, delivered the keynote speech, paving the way for a fruitful discussion on how to foster multilingual communication to reach out to European citizens.

The purpose of the workshop was to take stock of achievements made by EU agencies in the area of multilingualism to date; identify and discuss the challenges that agencies face; and explore the new opportunities for multilingualism created by today’s language technologies.

In his speech on ‘Multilingualism in the digital era’, the Centre’s acting director, Benoît Vitale, stressed that multilingualism ‘… is not only one of the EU’s founding principles anchored in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. It is also (…) the sine qua non for stakeholders and citizens to understand all that the EU is achieving for them and to participate in the EU’s democratic process.’

He further explained that technological advances have expanded the ways that organisations can deploy multilingualism. It is now crucial for EU institutions, agencies and bodies to capitalise on neural machine translation, speech-to-text technologies and translation memory tools, in particular, given that they are faced with high translation volumes of varied and specialised content to be processed with limited budgetary resources. 

Following this speech, the Head of the Centre’s Translation Support Department, Mauro Bubnic, showed participants what translation looks like today thanks to artificial intelligence. When the Translation Centre was set up in 1994, it simply delivered one service: translation. Nowadays, clients can choose between various value-added services such as raw machine translation using the Centre’s highly advanced engines, subtitling, Paste ‘n’ Go and, soon, automatic translation followed by light post-editing. In addition, the Centre is currently developing ‘summarisation’ combined with raw or post-edited machine translation as a new service which could boost multilingualism while keeping costs under control.

Well known for her commitment to multilingualism in the EU, Ms Emily O’Reilly reminded everyone in her speech that the work done by the EU agencies is ‘vital to the wellbeing of every EU citizen’ and that good communication in a language that people understand not only ‘creates better outcomes but also trust.’ She said that the huge volumes of fake news make it all the more important that the relevant agencies adapt and boost their external communication, ‘making sure that their language policy is fit for that purpose.’

With all this in mind, Ms O’Reilly provided the following practical recommendations: 1) translate information of interest to the general public as much as possible; 2) make maximum use of language technologies; and 3) establish clear language policies that strike the right balance between multilingualism, administrative efficiency and budgetary constraints. Ms O’Reilly underlined the benefit of the Network for discussing all such issues and learning from each other. She noted that one idea raised by several EU agencies was to develop, in the Network, a language policy template that could be adapted by EU agencies according to their individual needs.

Following the keynote speech, three discussion groups were set up to brainstorm about how to raise the agencies’ profiles through multilingual websites. During a pandemic where physical gatherings have been almost impossible, the agencies’ websites have become more important than ever as the point of reference for anyone seeking information in a specific area. In each discussion group, one agency presented its multilingual website approach as a starting point; the agencies being the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) and the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA).

The subsequent discussions enabled participants to exchange ideas and best practices. For example, several agencies use web analytics to determine priorities in terms of content and languages. Some adapt the content of the first two layers of their websites so that it can be translated easily. Others have a tool that facilitates the handling of multilingual content embedded in their content management system. An example of such a tool is the CdT Drupal Web Translation module. As scheduling multilingual content publishing can be challenging, some choose to publish in English first and release the translations afterwards.

The workshop contributed to raising EU agencies’ awareness that an intrinsic part of their mission is outreach to citizens in their own language. The unprecedented technological advances in the linguistic field over the past few years have created all types of opportunities for progress in multilingual communication. It is therefore the right time to rethink approaches to multilingualism in this context.