Hyper-Polyglot, Greek Translator Speaks 32 Languages

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.

Just a sampling of Ikonomou's many greetings
Christoph B. Schiltz

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."

Total dedication

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."

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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