Questions & Answers on Interpretation

Source: European Commission (EC) i, published on Thursday, February 19 2009.

How many English Unit interpreters are there at the European Commission today and what is the situation in a ten-year perspective?

DG Interpretation today has 70 EN staff interpreters, of which 25 will have to retire by 2018, which is the best-case scenario. In the worst case – if all choose early retirement from age 55 - we shall lose 48 EN staff interpreters by 2018. The actual figure will be between the two, possibly around 35 or 50% of today’s total. This figure, however, does not take into account potential departures for other personal reasons, such as mobility, illness or pre-retirement part-time. Given past trends, there is a strong probability that the real scenario will tend further towards the worst case. In other words, a minimum loss of 3-4 English staff interpreters per year over the coming ten years, compared with an average loss of one per year over the past ten years. The average age of staff as well as freelance EU interpreters is just over 48.

The EU Institutions between them currently have a total of 297 accredited freelance interpreters, of which only about 123 regularly work for DG Interpretation, for example because they have rarely used languages or because they live very far away. Their age profile is very similar to that of the staff interpreters, which means we are likely to lose at least 54 of our regular freelance interpreters or 45% by 2018.


Table 1 :

English active language interpreters

  • retirement 2009 – 2018 – three scenarios



Best case



Worst case



Average Case



In other words, just to keep up with the current level of demand – and demand is on the increase – we will need to add at least 18-22 freelances per year to our joint EU accreditation list in the hope that an average of 3 or 4 of them will join the DG Interpretation staff every year and that 8-9 of them will be available to the Commission for freelance work.

Taking into account the current trend in demand and potential future, larger conference centres, we are looking at a need for about 300 English native speaker conference interpreters within the next ten years. To this we have to add the needs of other international organisations and, of course, business.

It should be borne in mind that of those graduates from interpreter training courses that apply to work for the EU Institutions only about 30% pass the accreditation test.

If we look at the past five years, where selection of freelance interpreters has been carried out jointly by the three EU interpreting services, on average 10 freelances have been added to our joint lists for all institutions every year. During the same period only one inter-institutional open competition for English language interpreters was held (in 2006). It yielded 8 staff interpreters for DG Interpretation, all of which were subtracted from the freelance list. In other words, the competition led to no change in total numbers.


Table 2 :

Interpreters working into English

– average arrivals per year 2004 - 2008

  • Staff


  • Freelance

10 (total in joint list)

In 2008, the number of interpreter days provided by DG Interpretation increased by 8% - and for interpreters working into English by 5%. In 2013, the new building for the European Council, under construction in Brussels, will be ready, adding more rooms and freeing up meeting room capacity in the Justus Lipsius building. In 2015, the European Commission is expected to inaugurate a new, larger conference centre to replace the current Albert Borschette Centre. More rooms, more meetings and an increasing need for English language interpreters. Even without taking this highly probable increase in demand into account, we can already project a potential shortfall in our three scenarios, assuming the current level of output from interpreter schools stays constant and drops no further.


Table 3 :

Interpreters working into English

Total shortfall in 2018 – three scenarios, assuming the average arrivals in table 4 remain constant and there is no increase in demand.




Best case


plus 10

Worst case



Average Case



Even with no further growth in demand, if there is no increase in the average number of English-speakers who join the profession and if retirement takes place at the projected average rate, there is a serious risk that English-speaking delegates will not be able to participate in the EU-decision-making process on an equal footing with other Europeans, and that the decision-making process itself will be slowed down

Where are English interpreters trained?

The following universities in the UK have post-graduate courses in conference interpreting:

Bath, Heriot-Watt (Edinburgh), Leeds, London Metropolitan, London Westminster, Salford and Newcastle (Japanese/Chinese only). A new course is to begin at University of Central Lancashire in autumn 2009. In Ireland a new course (through Irish) was established at the University of Galway in autumn 2008.

The 'Routes into Languages' initiative was launched in England in 2007 to address the decline in languages-learning and as a result there was considerable press coverage of the shortage of linguists in the UK media in 2008.

DG Interpretation is regularly represented at career days for graduates as well as other events for university students and schoolchildren and maintains contacts with careers advice officers. The DG is also represented on the advisory committee of the National Network for Interpreting and the Professional Languages at Universities Group in the UK.

Meetings have been held with government officials in Ireland to ensure that the need for more language professionals is recognised there too.


General background

The Directorate General for Interpretation (DG Interpretation) is the largest interpreting service in the world. It is part of the European Commission and reports to Commissioner Leonard Orban i. DG Interpretation provides quality interpretation in meetings arranged by the Commission and the other Institutions it serves, and provides a conference organising capacity to Commission services.

The Council of the Union, The Committee of the Regions, The European Economic and Social Committee, The European Investment Bank, and the agencies and offices in the Member States all get their interpreters from DG Interpretation. The European Parliament and the European Court of Justice have separate interpreting services with which DG Interpretation collaborates closely. As well as providing interpretation for meetings, our core objectives also include staying at the leading edge of new technologies for conference interpreting.

Why are all those languages important?

A handful of interpreters helped the negotiators of the Treaty of Rome understand each other in four languages in 1957. Since then, the number of languages has continued to grow along with each enlargement of the European Community and, later, the European Union. Today, interpreters from the 27 Member States help everyone understand the 23 official languages. This multilingual arrangement is unique in the world, and to some the extra work it creates for the Institutions may seem, at first sight, to outweigh the advantages. But there are special reasons for it. The Union passes laws directly binding on its citizens and companies, and as a matter of fairness and simple natural justice, they and their courts must have a version of the laws they have to comply with or enforce in a language they can understand.

Giving everyone at the table a voice in their own language is a fundamental requirement of the democratic legitimacy of the European Union. There should be no obstacle to those attending meetings understanding what is being said and putting forward their views. The citizens of Europe should not have to be represented in Brussels by their best linguists: they can send their best experts. DG Interpretation will make sure they understand each other.

See the EU Languages Portal at :

What is conference interpretation?

Conference interpretation deals exclusively with oral communication: rendering a message from one language into another, naturally and fluently, adopting the delivery, tone and convictions of the speaker and speaking in the first person. It should not be confused with translation which deals only with written texts. International conferences are attended by people from different backgrounds and cultures, and speaking different languages. It is the job of an interpreter to enable them to communicate with each other, not by translating every word they utter, but by conveying the ideas which they express.

What are the different techniques of conference interpreting?

There are two main techniques. The first is Consecutive interpreting, where the interpreter takes notes while the speaker is speaking and then gives back the speech in another language as soon as the speaker has finished. The second, which accounts for over 90% of all conference interpreting, is Simultaneous interpreting, where the interpreter will listen to the speaker and interpret at the same time whilst keeping pace with the speaker. This form of interpreting requires meeting rooms specially equipped with soundproof booths for the interpreters and electronic equipment for sound amplification, transmission and recording.

How is interpretation organised?

DG Interpretation provides interpreters for 50-60 meetings each day in Brussels and elsewhere. Each working day, 700-800 interpreters are ready to help the delegations of the Member States and other countries understand each other. Of these, roughly half are staff interpreters and half are freelances recruited on a daily contract basis

The language arrangements for these meetings vary considerably from consecutive interpretation between two languages, for which only one interpreter may be required, to simultaneous interpretation into and out of 22 or more languages, which requires at least 66 interpreters.

Catering for such language arrangements requires the use of all the various simultaneous interpretation techniques and regimes we regularly apply:

  • direct interpretation
  • relay
  • two-way interpretation or retour
  • asymmetric language coverage.

(for more details, please see:

Who are the interpreters?

DG Interpretation employs more than 550 full-time staff interpreters, plus a variable number of freelances each day. Freelance Interpreters who wish to work for DG Interpretation must first pass an accreditation test. However, these tests, as well as the database of accredited freelances, are inter-institutional, which means that a freelance whose name is on the list may work not only for DG Interpretation but also the interpreting services of the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice. There are currently around 3000 names in the database.

Many people believe that to be an interpreter, you need to be fluent in half a dozen languages. This is a myth: the majority of conference interpreters interpret only into their mother tongue! If you would like to know more about what it takes to be an interpreter, please look at

DG Interpretation in Key Figures

The total annual cost of interpretation at DG Interpretation in 2008 was 128 million euro, spread over the budgets of the institutions and bodies for which it provides interpretation.


All translation and interpretation in the European Union institutions cost about € 2.5 per citizen in 2008

INTERPRETATION in Figures 2008

550 staff interpreters

300-400 freelance interpreters/day

2,000 accredited freelance interpreters working for DG Interpretation

50-60 meetings/day

11.000 meetings/year

158.000 interpreter days/year

Total cost of interpretation 2008 : € 128.000.000