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EU website multilingualism: what to translate and into which languages?

The size and complexity of EUROPA would be problematic even if it were monolingual. According to DG COMM figures, EUROPA includes some 6 million documents. Directorates-General are responsible for their own publishing activities, and no percentage is available on the language coverage of these sites. One thing is sure, however: full multilingualism of all EUROPA contents would be absolutely impossible, taking into account not only the amount of material published but also its dynamism. Maintaining and updating a complex web portal requires a lot of work, and rationalisation efforts cannot deal with language policy in isolation. The top level pages have been recently reorganised, and the renewed website was launched in autumn 2009.

Priority rules for web translations have been set in the Communication on demand management SEC(2006) 1489 final, and last fine-tuned in June 2009. According to the latest plan, the order of importance for documents to be translated into all languages for EUROPA is the following:

  • EUROPA homepage
    • Commission homepage (static parts)
    • Interinstitutional top pages
    • Commission top pages (including the homepage news)
    • Current political priorities
    • Citizens’ summaries

For the following websites a smaller number of languages can be accepted, depending on the target group:

  • Thematic portals
    • Thematic websites
    • Commissioners’ websites
    • DGs’ websites

Detailed advice on language coverage on Commission sites is given in the Commission’s Information Providers’ Guide. This document points out that “the language issue is one of the first aspects to be tackled when planning or revamping a site”, and that the initial policy should be reviewed regularly. It identifies the documents which should be translated into all languages, loosely in accordance with the demand management strategy.

Commissioners’ websites have become much more multilingual over the last few years, although usually only part of the material is multilingual. In addition to becoming more multilingual, Commissioners’ websites have also developed in a more interactive direction, as further explained in Chapter 5.2.

Evolution of multilingualism on Commissioners’ websites during the existence of the Web Unit:

  • Language >>> January 2006 >>> November 2009
  • 1 language >>> 7 >>> 1
  • 2 languages >>> 7 >>> 7
  • 3 languages >>> 4 >>> 2
  • 4 languages >>> 3 >>> 6
  • 5–19 languages >>> 0 >>> 0
  • 20 or more >>> 4 >>> 11
  • Total >>> 25 >>> 27

Taking into account the generally accepted vision of websites as services where users come to carry out a transaction or to find a specific piece of information, the Commission probably gains more in focusing on the actual service pages intended for citizens, instead of general presentation of DGs’ work or organisation charts.

“Multilingualism is one element of efficient communication, but not in isolation. There is a more important trade-off between the number of pages published and of the pages you can keep up to date and manage.”

As far as language use is concerned, EUROPA should ideally match the choice of languages with the profile of the target audience in each individual case. This requires, as a first step, that the intended or actual website user group is known. As mentioned above, in many cases the intended target group is not known by the Commission.

The actual reader groups are even less known. DG COMM gathers statistics of the number of visitors to different pages and on their navigation path on EUROPA, but the data collected is unfortunately not detailed enough to allow to draw meaningful conclusions. The results of the recent external evaluation of EUROPA, which consisted in a survey for the portal’s users, indicate that students and employees are the biggest user groups, and that two thirds of them visit the portal regularly. That is useful information, although one could ask whether the respondents were representative of EUROPA users; regular users may have been more motivated to reply than occasional visitors.

DG COMM statistics on the pages most viewed show that the most consulted pages are those offering services such as Eures (job mobility; 6% of all pages viewed in September 2009), IATE (terminology, 3.7%), taxation and customs pages (especially customs, 3%), and Eurostat (statistics, 1.4 %). It is noteworthy that of these services, the Eures pages, which are clearly intended for the “general public”, are fully multilingual, while the customs and statistics pages, which probably have a more specialised professional readership, are mostly trilingual. This indicates that the multilingualism efforts on EUROPA are quite well directed, although not yet perfect. – IATE, the terminology website, which is most probably used by translators and public sector professionals, has a multilingual search form – not to mention the essentially multilingual contents.

The ability of EUROPA users to read the different languages is one of the most important criteria. The above-mentioned evaluation concludes, on the basis of a reader survey, that nine out of ten EUROPA users are happy with its current language coverage. Available information on language skills of Europeans is also mostly based on surveys, pending the European indicator of language competence and the results of Commission surveys on foreign language skills. However, based on the 2006 Eurobarometer on Europeans and their languages and Eurostat statistics on EU population in 2009, 60% of Europeans have one of the five biggest EU official languages as their mother tongue:

  • German 17%
  • English 12%
  • Italian 12%
  • French 11%
  • Spanish 8%
  • TOTAL 60%

No comprehensive data are available for the other languages, but as 98% of Polish nationals, 96% of Dutch and 95% of the Romanian Eurobarometer respondents declared the national language to be their mother tongue, and 56% of Belgians said Dutch was their mother tongue, we could add the following estimates:

* Polish 7%
* Dutch 4%
* Romanian 4%

Assuming that, of the remaining 25%, an average of 38% know English as a foreign language (as stated in the Eurobarometer), some 84% of EU citizens would manage to obtain information on EUROPA reading either their mother tongue or English as a foreign language.

38% of 25% = 9.5%
75% + 9.5% = 84.5%

In fact, knowledge of English is rising steadily, with a clear majority of young Europeans learning it at school. Adding to this figure those Europeans who know one of the abovementioned languages other than English as a foreign language, one could conclude that nearly 90% of EU citizens would be well informed using eight languages.

However, the remaining of 10% of EU citizens left out of the information cycle number almost 50 million in absolute terms. Rationalisation efforts are therefore bound to be based on criteria such as the profile of users of particular web pages, rather than on excluding those official languages that do not belong to a club of the three, five or eight most widely understood languages.

In addition, although the style used on EUROPA is generally quite easy to read, foreign language skills acquired at school may not be sufficient for getting informed about complex matters, or for participating in discussions about them.

The proportion of people using the Internet varies greatly between European countries, between age groups and between socio-economic groups. Therefore, it is useful for the Commission to know who actually has access to EUROPA. A Eurobarometer indicates that Greece, Bulgaria and Romania have the lowest proportion of inhabitants using the Internet for personal purposes, while Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands have the highest proportion (Flash Eurobarometer Flash 241, Information society as seen by EU citizens, published in November 2008). Proportions differ to some extent if only professional use is taken into account: in Slovenia, 78% of Internet users have professional purposes, while in Ireland a small majority uses the Internet for personal purposes only.

Internet users (sample of countries) according to Eurobarometer Flash 241:

  • Country >>> Have used Internet in the last three months (%) >>> Share of those Internet users who use it in their daily work (%)
  • Denmark >>> 91 >>> 63
  • Sweden >>> 85 >>> 64
  • Netherlands >>> 82 >>> 54
  • Ireland >>> 76 >>> 47 (lowest)
  • Germany >>> 71 >>> 55
  • Slovenia >>> 69 >>> 78 (highest)
  • EU27 >>> 68 >>> 56
  • Greece >>> 50 >>> 54
  • Bulgaria >>> 49 >>> 52
  • Romania >>> 41 >>> 55

These figures give some indication as to who reads EUROPA. Translators make their further assumptions case-by-case on the basis of the context, the contents of the material to be translated, or on common sense.

© European Union

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