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Multilingual discussion forums – the real test of barrier-breaking

“What we need is one multilingual discussion forum where users can define their profile and only see entries in the languages they can read.”

The Commission’s websites focus on satisfying need for information, but they offer some possibilities for active participation: they host several discussion forums and organise on-line consultations on policy initiatives. It is also possible to request information material, to register for events etc.

Discussion forums and other interactive sites, such as blogs with readers’ comments and microblogs, are features of Web 2.0, meaning that the web is developing in a shared, participatory direction. People used to consult websites primarily to look for information or carry out tasks, but increasingly they also participate actively, sharing opinions or knowledge.

The Commission’s ambition to dialogue with citizens could benefit from this development. Until now, efforts have consisted in some Commissioners’ blogs. In spite of the attractiveness of these possibilities, DG COMM, which is leading the on-going reform of EUROPA, has taken the wise decision to advance carefully.

Interactive web puts much more pressure on the organisation of translation. It is not enough to translate the Commission’s message into as many languages as possible: participants’ opinions and questions should also be translated, as well as the Commission’s and other participants’ reactions – and this should be done very quickly.

This kind of interaction is a test for European multilingualism in all the meanings of the word (co-existence of many languages in a community; people knowing many languages; services provided in many languages). If people have learned a vehicular language, they can communicate without language mediators. If this is not possible, translators can help. Using translation services is less time-consuming than learning a language, but on a highly active website the time taken for translations should be extremely short, and communication takes place more naturally in a common language, typically in a simplified form of English even if this limits the scope of expression.

During an on-line session of Debate Europe, web translators were invited to participate as moderators for their language. They also translated some interesting messages into English to be posted in the English-language forum and to bring a pan-European dimension to the debates. However, most participants from non-vehicular languages preferred to join in with the more lively forums.

This phenomenon has two sides: European-wide interaction does takes place – on the English channel – but those wishing to communicate in another language run the risk of being left out of the action.

On the non-vehicular language channels, discussions often take place between nationals of the same country and remain national in perspective. One could ask why someone would go to a Commission website to participate in a national debate, when there are many national websites that could be used for that purpose. These questions were already asked by Ruth Wodak and Scott Wright, who in 2005 studied the discussions taking place on the Commission’s “Future of Europe” forum (The European Union in Cyberspace: Democratic Participation via Online Multilingual Discussion Boards, in The Multilingual Internet, Brenda Danet and Susan C. Herring (ed.), Oxford University Press 2007.). No perfect solution has been brought yet to the challenges of a multilingual discussion forum.

Currently, participants of the less-used language forums on EUROPA are occasionally referred by moderators to a related, more lively debate on the English-language forum. This seems to be the only reasonable thing to do when there are just a handful of participants in a given language. A suggestion along these lines was made by a French participant to the Debate Europe “intercultural dialogue” forum in 2008: everyone should express themselves in a single forum in any language they can use; when someone replies to an entry in another language, they should summarise the contents of the original message, to help their readers understand the point of their posting. This system, which was to some extent used in the “Have your say” forum on Commissioner Orban’s website, for example, would be supplemented by a machine translation device, and have the extra benefit of people coming into contact with several foreign languages and encouraging them to read entries in languages they understand even partially.

DGT web translators also regret the “monolingual ghettos” of EUROPA discussion forums. Some suggested a multilingual forum where users can define their profile in order to see entries only in the languages they can read, and/or a machine translation tool for understanding. However, offering a machine translation tool on Commission web pages, or linking to existing software in the Internet, would raise many questions related to intellectual property as well as to the image of the Commission and of DGT, who would not like to create any confusion as to what is translated by the DGT and what is the result of an ad-hoc machine translation. Moreover, the quality of machine translation tools varies greatly across language pairs, and these tools are still virtually non-existent for many languages.

Before deciding what language arrangements are appropriate for Commission forums, it is worth asking what purpose the forums serve. If they are created to enable interaction between citizens and the Commission, Commission officials have to participate actively, replying to questions and presenting the institution’s point of view. This also requires summarising the messages systematically to Commission management, as well as translations for the Commission postings.

If on the other hand the purpose is to allow people to communicate between themselves without the Commission’s interference and thus promote the European public sphere, it should be accepted that the discussion is likely to happen only in a couple of languages – or a rapid translation service should be set up. Of course, a monolingual system might drive some participants away, and lower the quality of contributions. This is a good demonstration of the fact that the respect of multilingualism does not necessarily mean using systematically all the official languages, but the purpose of the action has to be considered.

Apart from its opinion-related sites, EUROPA offers a range of other interactive services: the Internal Market Information Service is now being piloted for national administrations and is translated into all official languages by DGT Web Unit. People can also register EU recruitment competitions on the EPSO website and organisations can submit project proposals online. These developments are likely to raise the demand for translation of interactive web pages, and DGT’s level of involvement.

© European Union

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