Every five years, twenty-seven member states elect 785 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), who are sent to Brussels with a mission to work on issues directly affecting the lives of citizens throughout the Union. But for a parliament to be effective, communication has to flow. The right to expression in one’s native language is one of the inalienable rights granted to MEP’s, and in Brussels, where there are 23 official languages, debate would soon degenerate into the clamour of Babel were it not for a small but efficient army of interpreters discreetly housed in glass booths, who tirelessly translate the speeches and questions piped through to their headsets.

The task of recruiting good interpreters for different countries is one of the duties of the Director General of Interpreting, Olga Cosmidou, and her team: "We have to ensure that each MEP’s right to expression in his or her own language is respected, and prepare copies of every document in all of the EU languages. The United Nations translation service, with six official languages, is a piece of cake in comparison. There are so many potential combinations of languages that we sometimes have to use relay systems; where, for example, the Estonian interpreter will translate a speech by an Estonian MEP into English, and other interpreters will retranslate it into other languages. Quality is very important, because interpreting is a chain, whose strength is determined by its weakest link. There is so much work during the plenary sessions in Strasbourg that we need to deploy up to 1,000 full-time and freelance staff."

At the parliament, the recruitment procedure for interpreters is very strict, and the standards are the highest in the world. "Interpreters have to master a huge range of subjects without being experts. In fact, we are masters of everything and experts in nothing," explains Rita Silva, director of the central scheduling unit for interpreters. “When you try to stay up to date on all the issues that may be discussed in the parliament, you end up with a strange encyclopaedic culture after a few years. I think the people who take on this type of career are mainly driven by intellectual curiosity. But you also need a great deal of humility, because there is always the possibility that you will misunderstand someone. If that happens, you have to acknowledge your mistake, apologize, and ask the MEP to repeat what he or she has said, before moving on."

When a new country enters the European Parliament, universities and interpreting and language schools are contacted to find interpreters who are up to the task. Anna Grzybowska, head of the Polish booth, is also in charge of foreign missions for the group of interpreters recruited when ten new countries joined the EU in 2003. "The arrival of Poland and nine other countries (the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Cyprus, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Slovenia, and Slovakia,) was a major change for the parliament, like a child suddenly becoming an adolescent, which as you know, is never an easy period for the parents. I think some people were probably disappointed, perhaps because their expectations were too high. There are many things that the European Parliament does not control, which can only be managed by member states."

Elisabetta Palmieri worked as a freelancer for 20 years, before joining the 400-strong unit of fulltime interpreters. "There is more to interpreting than just the real-time translation of what people are saying. You have to take into account other aspects of the communication process as well as the words themselves. We have to pay attention to the physical attitudes of the speaker, the context in which the speech is delivered, and the possibility of innuendo. It is stressful work, especially during the plenary sessions, when the time allotted to speakers can be limited to one to five minutes — and they try to use every second. Often they read their speeches at lightening speed, which is a real challenge for us." “Sometimes, there are embarrassing incidents, like the day when Berlusconi suggested Martin Schultz would make an excellent Nazi guard." Susanne Altenberg, a graduate of the Cologne Interpreting School, was in the booth that day. "I saw my colleague turn pale, she had to translate the insult to Schultz. But these things happen. Political debates are not always lukewarm, sometimes they can get quite heated."