Greece native Ioannis Ikonomou learned English at age five, German at seven and Italian at barely 10. He hasn't stopped since, and is currently mastering Albanian.
BRUSSELS — Inside a gray office building in Brussels, Ioannis Ikonomou's workload is marked in different colors on his computer screen. The 49-year-old Greek translator manages the work himself, which in the next two weeks alone includes two long texts from German and French into Greek. It's a little boring, he says in perfect German, "but it's my contribution to Europe."
More exciting are three special requests: The EU Commission urgently needs translations of confidential documents from Hebrew, Chinese and Azerbaijani. Very few of the EU's 2,500 translators can handle that. Ikonomou is the best of them all. He speaks 32 languages virtually fluently, including a pair of dead languages. What his brain has managed to achieve is perhaps unique on the planet. How can a human being learn so many languages? And how does he live with that?
Ikonomou regards questions like that as "funny." He's never asked them of himself. He also doesn't know whether 32 languages would put him in the Guinness World Records Book. As he sips his green tea, he says his career developed out of curiosity. "That's a keyword for my life."
On the beaches of Crete, the young Ikonomou heard tourists speaking various languages, but he didn't understand them. He didn't play soccer, and most school subjects bored him. He preferred to delve into the world of unknown words.
Curiosity started early
He learned English at age five, German at seven ("Frau Rosi, a German lady on Crete, taught me"), Italian when he was barely 10 ("a school friend started to take it, and I wanted to be better than he was"), Russian at 13 ("I loved Dostoyevsky"), East African Swahili at 14 ("just for fun") and Turkish at 16. "I didn’t want enemies," he says. "I wanted to be able to talk to people." At the time, there were no Turkish textbooks in Greece. "So my parents found Mrs. Ayse, an architect who had emigrated from northern Cyprus. She was strict."
But it wasn't just his curiosity that turned Ikonomou into a language nut. Nor was it his intellligence, which won him membership in the high-IQ society Mensa International. "My friends all listened to the same Greek songs and ate souvlaki," he says. "But I wanted to get away from souvlaki, from my culture, from my roots. I was the opposite of Odysseus." So Ikonomou kept up his travels through the languages and cultures of the world and continues to do so to this day.
After Turkish, he learned Arabic and became a Sufi, which is to say an Islamic mystic. "The rules of a language are only the beginning for me," he says. "I want to understand everything — the food, the music, the religion, the traumas of a people." Then he took a quantum leap: Ikonomou suddenly became fascinated by India, and studied Urdu, Hindi and Sanskrit. For 18 years, he was a strict vegetarian and lived by Hindu rules.
"But my mother went crazy," he recounts. "She said, "Enough with this Indian music. And why do you have to eat with your fingers?" My parents always supported me, but too much was too much. Sometimes I think they would have been happier if I'd been completely normal and listened to Greek pop music."
Despite this, he pursued his interests. "At some point, it became clear to me I'd never be a real Hindu." Today Ikonomou no longer believes in any god, eats meat to his heart's content, and occasionally drinks alcohol. "What's important is doing some good," he says.
Unique the world over?
Ikonomou speaks 21 of the total of 24 official EU languages. "I forgot my Lithuanian, and I didn't have time for Gaelic or Maltese." He understands not only modern languages, but also various old ones — Latin, of course, but also Old English, Mayan, Old Irish and Old Iranian. Ikonomou wrote his Harvard dissertation on a text by the prophet Zarathustra written in Avestan, a form of Old Iranian.
"Language is like love," he says. "When you really fall in love with someone you also want to know their whole story, meet their parents, visit their old schools. A language is not just the present for me but also the past."
Ikonomou recently made a discovery. He found out that the word "rain" in all Slavic languages comes from Old Iranian. "That got me so excited I would have loved to discuss it with somebody," he says. "I'd also love to talk about the ancient Mayan inscriptions in the museum in Mexico City or the teachings of King Darius, who lived 500 years before Christ. But I can't think of anybody to have the discussions with. Sometimes I feel lonely, but that's the way it is."
Ikonomou is not, however, alone. He has friends and family and is married to Tomek, who is Polish. "I’m not a geek," he says. "I have friends that have never even heard the words Old English or Sanskrit. We go out and have a good time." But at some point, when the friends are gone and Tomek has gone to bed, Ikonomou disappears into his world. On his PC, he watches Chinese or Hungarian TV, anything that's on. He chats for hours in Russian, Turkish, Bulgarian and even with Amharic speakers from Ethiopia.
It's that way every night. Around four in the morning he goes to bed and sleeps for four or five hours, which he knows is not good for his health. "But it's the way I keep up with the languages," he explains. "I don't have to keep practicing my vocabulary. I'm not a student anymore. I'm somebody who makes use of these languages in real life."
Ikonomou's work requires him to translate primarily official documents, but he listens to worldwide chats, Internet TV, radio on his iPod in the mornings and evenings on the way to and from work, always in different languages. Lately he's been keeping up with the news in Chinese. "That's particularly important for me." The EU Commission requires ever more translations from the Chinese. In his office there's a board with Chinese characters written on it.
"Chinese is my favorite language," he says. "It's completely different, the Mount Everest for Europeans." He’s been to China a few times, and learned more of the language each time. The costs are borne by the Commission, mostly. There are some countries whose languages he speaks that Ikonomou has never visited, including Ethiopia and the Congo. "I just don’t have the time."
He now wants to learn Albanian. The country recently became a candidate for EU membership. "I always need an incentive," he says. His goal is to understand the news on Albanian radio within three months. He doesn't need a vocabulary book for that, instead preferring electronic dictionaries and the Internet.
"For several months I've been focusing on Albanian, learning words, making cross connections. Then I store them and use them right away in chats or when I read the newspaper." He calls this method "total dedication."