For Europe, a lesson in ABCs (of Cyrillic)

For Europe, a lesson in ABCs (of Cyrillic)

The New York Times

SOFIA — When Saints Cyril and Methodius gave the Slavic world its first written script, their mission was to draw the Slavs under the influence of Constantinople and away from Rome. A thousand or so years later, Cyrillic is heading west – this time to a united Europe.

With Bulgaria scheduled to enter the European Union along with Romania on Jan. 1, Cyrillic is becoming the bloc’s third official alphabet, after Latin and Greek; by the end of the decade, if Bulgaria succeeds in joining the euro zone, it may even appear on euro banknotes.

Although Bulgaria has no commitment to reciprocate by displaying signs in the Latin alphabet, “We are doing it,” says Nikolay Vassilev, minister for state administration and administrative reform. “More slowly than I would like.”

With one of the world’s largest translation services, the EU does not expect problems adding Bulgarian and its Cyrillic alphabet to the array of languages it already handles.

Still, linguistic diversity comes at a price. For 2005, the total cost of all language services – written translation and spoken interpretation – in the EU’s 20 official languages was €1.1 billion – about 1 percent the total EU budget, or €2.28 per person across the 25-member bloc. With the addition of Bulgarian and Romanian in 2007, along with Irish becoming an operational language, the cost is expected to increase by a total of €30 million, or $38.5 million. The directorate-general for translation will need about 60 full-time translators for each of the three new languages – 180 jobs.

The directorate, based in Luxembourg and Brussels, is already the European Commission’s largest department, with about 1,650 full-time translators and 550 support staff members. In 2005, they translated 1,324,231 pages.

About a third of all EU documents are translated into each official language; the rest, largely internal documents, are translated into the EU’s three working languages: English, French and German.

Rusana Bardarska, a Bulgarian translator, said the hardest part of introducing Bulgarian was EU terminology, for which Bulgarian words may not exist. “Should we translate ‘communitarization,’ ‘convergence,’ ‘flexsecurity’ and ‘cohesion,’ or rather introduce them as new words in Bulgarian?” she asked.

“The alphabet is the easy part,” said Dieter Rummel, head of language technology at the Translations Center for the Bodies of the European Union. “But it was a big deal 10 years ago.”

When the Greek alphabet was first introduced, Rummel said, the available technology could not smoothly accommodate the new character set. But EU computers now use Unicode, a character encoding system that allows representation of all alphabets, even non-Indo- European alphabets such as Chinese.

Back in Bulgaria, however, spelling is a major problem, according to Vassilev, the government minister. Many Cyrillic letters have no Latin equivalent, or several possibilities. The result, he says, is that some Bulgarian cities are spelled seven different ways in Latin – even on signs within the same city.

“There is no other country in the world with a problem of this magnitude,” Vassilev said.

To address this, Vassilev developed “Comprehensible Bulgaria,” a transliteration system created by linguists so that all Bulgarian proper names would be rendered the same way in the Latin alphabet. The transliteration software is available for free on the ministry’s Web page.

The new spellings are now obligatory for state institutions, but people are free to continue transliterating their names as they like, and Vassilev expects it to take years for the public to adopt the new system.

He himself has used four different spellings of his own name during his lifetime. If the cabinet accepts his proposal to make name changing an administrative act rather than a court procedure, he will change his name to conform with the new system: Vasilev.

In Sofia, the capital, street signs differ in each area. Signs for streets named after Communist-era heroes coexist with the signs bearing new post-Communist street names. Some neighborhoods have signs in Cyrillic only, while others have Latin signs as well.

“Until now, neighborhood mayors who have wanted to change the signs have changed them however they have wanted,” says Velizar Stoilov, deputy mayor for transport and transport infrastructure. He is working on a project to replace and unify the city’s 800,000 or so street signs on the occasion of Bulgaria’s EU entry. All would be bilingual, with the spellings defined by the new system. Informational signs for tourist sites in English would also be included.

Since the city cannot afford the estimated cost of €4 million, EU accession funds are a possible source of finance, Stoilov said.

Visitors to Sofia have mixed impressions of the linguistic challenge. While they are glad to have maps in the Latin alphabet, some say, this does not help much when street signs are in Cyrillic.

“If I want to find where I am on the map, I have to count the number of streets,” said Stanley Tam, a bus operator from Ottawa.

Chantal Bonnin, a surgeon from Bordeaux, disagreed, saying she liked signs in Cyrillic only, even though it took her family two hours to find their hotel. “If they write like us, it’s a problem of the unification of languages,” she said. “Otherwise, in 30 years, there will be only one.”

Vassilev says he has no concerns about the survival of Bulgarian as a language, at least not as a result of accession to the European Union.

“Joining the EU has less of an effect on Cyrillic than globalization, the Internet and SMSs,” he said.

For Bulgarian-language Internet communication and SMS exchanges, young Bulgarians have improvised a new Latin-based alphabet, largely because of the convenience of using Latin text interfaces.

Bulgarians are so proud of their alphabet that they celebrate a national holiday on May 24 called “the Day of Bulgarian Enlightenment and Culture and of the Slavonic Alphabet.” The holiday was created in the mid-19th century, when Bulgaria was trying to become independent after 500 years as part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

“The holiday was a good solution to separate Bulgaria from the Turks and away from Catholic Christian world,” says Christo Matanov, professor of medieval bulgarian history at Sofia University. “The main task was building a modern nation.”

The Cyrillic alphabet is used by 224 million people in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia (in Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia, the Latin alphabet is used, too). An additional 60 million Central Asians use Cyrillic to write their own non-Slavic languages, though the Soviet-era linguistic leftover is being phased out.

That Bulgaria “gave” the alphabet to the Slavs is hotly disputed by five other Slavic nations – Macedonia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Russia – as well as Greece.

The Bulgarian claim is based on the alphabet’s taking hold, developing, and spreading mostly within the territory of what was then the Bulgarian Empire.

It is no surprise, then, that Bulgaria, planning to join the zone of countries using the euro as currency in 2009 or 2010, wants the word “euro” to be written in Cyrillic on bank notes, as it already is in Latin and Greek.

The European Central Bank is planning to consider integrating the new alphabet in a series of euro banknotes to be issued by the end of this decade.

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