European Commission Ditches Systran

Lost in (automatic) translation

By Simon Taylor
27.01.2011 / 04:45 CET
Translation between the EU’s 23 official languages, always a costly affair, has just become more expensive.

One of the defining features of the European Union is that it was created as a house of many languages. At its outset, there were four languages: French, German, Dutch, Italian; by 1995 there were 15 member states and 11 languages, and now there are 27 states and 23 languages.

In the European Commission, the operating languages are English, French and German, but Commission officials will bump up against many of the other languages in the course of their daily work.

Using all those languages is a costly business. A ruling from one of the EU courts – about a machine translation service – has just made things even costlier, landing the Commission with a compensation bill of €12 million.

The Commission began in the 1970s to develop a machine translation service, known as Systran, that would help staff by translating text in a rough-and-ready fashion, for general purposes rather than for legal perfection.

Systran became a feature of office life in the Commission over the course of the next 30 years. In 1988, 4,000 pages of text were translated by the system. By 1995, the figure had risen to 160,000 pages a year. But after an adverse judgment from a European court last month, Commission officials have been ordered not to use Systran anymore.

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