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Fighting for a better translation professionalism

By: Marion Chen

Interpretation in the public sector is in a bad shape. A recent report concludes that 85-90% of the interpreters in Denmark are non-educated, which means that they do not have a degree at any level in Danish, in the foreign language and/or in the field of translation. And they make grave mistakes. Potentially with life threatening consequences. There are many examples of mistakes in the report. For instance this one from an asylum seeker explaining his experience of his interpreter during his interview with the authorities:

“I told the translator that I lived near a mosque called “Iben Hanifah”. The translator translated that I belonged to the Islamic school, called Ibben Hanefah, which is a fanatical Islamic party”.

The report is made by Carina Graversen and her colleagues.

Carina Graversen is a member of “Translatørforeningen” – Association of Danish Authorised Translators and Interpreters. She has been working with her two fellow colleagues in the committee of interpreters pushing the agenda of the interpretation qualification to better the situation of poor translation in the public sectors in Denmark.

She and her collegues organised a debate in June 2017 in Bornholm at the Danish People’s Meeting (Folkemødet). Here, Senior Advisor Leonardo Doria de Sousa from Norway and COO for Interpreting Services Razvan State from Sweden were a part of the panel with the Danish regional politicians Per Larsen and Randi Mondorf and they discussed the possible solutions to increase the quality of the interpretation provided in Denmark.

Translation means fairness

For seven years working with her colleagues, Carina has been pushing the interpretation problem in the media with reports and debates. What they can see is that most of the translators in Denmark are not qualified interpreters, and this has become a big problem for patients, asylum seekers, people who are in court and the people who are in the governmental work in Denmark.

Right now in Denmark, there is no law or a degree that makes people who would like to interpret for doctors, lawyers, police or whoever, qualified to do so. Carina thinks it is a problem that a lot of citizens in Denmark don’t know what’s going on because the level of the interpretation service is low.

“We don’t think that’s very fair, especially to the asylum seekers and patients, because they need the professional advice from professional people, and the only way to get that advice is through the interpreter,” says Carina. “If the interpreter is not qualified, the people don’t get the information they need“.

Consequence of bad translation

Carina and her colleagues also think that it is unfair to the doctors, nurses, lawyers and public workers because they are generally qualified and very good at what they are doing.

Unfortunately, when they want to give a message to people who can’t understand Danish, they can’t use their skills because the interpreters are not able to give them the credit for their professionalism. This is a big problem for both users: the professional people in the public sectors and the foreigners or the immigrants.

That is what Carina and her colleagues have been trying to solve for seven years. They believe that it would save money in the long-run to make the interpreters qualified, and it has to be done professionally to help both parties. “This is our main work,” says Carina.

There is no qualification assessment of interpretation in Denmark although institutions that would like to provide the modules of translation as a major already exist. However, this needs to be made more official by the law obligation so students who graduate with qualifications can have at least a minimum guarantee of employment.

Good model to follow

Carina says: “We would very much like to adopt a model that we can see in our neighbouring countries Norway, Sweden and some parts of Germany and Europe. They have a minimum standard for the interpreters“.

Carina likes the Norwegian model very much. According to Carina’s understanding, Norway and Denmark have a kind of brotherhood from their common history, and Sweden as well. The culture of nordic countries is very much alike and when a country is doing something that works, the others can copy it. “Not copy exactly but you can be very inspired by the way they do,” says Carina.

20 years ago, it was the same situation in Norway: no qualified interpreters and big translation problems for patients, police and immigration sections, as the Norwegian Advisor Leonardo Doria de Sousa explained. Then, a political decision made it mandatory for the interpreters who work in the public systems to be qualified. A model has been developed which includes a test that proves the competence and capability of the interpreters to interpret something in the specified field.

“This is what the debate was basically about: asking Norwegian and Swedish people to tell Danish politicians to look what they have done so that they can do the same,” says Carina. “So this is what we do”.

Difficult to change the system

However, to make it happen is still very difficult because as far as Carina knows, the ministers are divided into sectors, and all ministers have their own ideas of how to solve the problem. This makes them less interested in cooperating.

Carina has found out that all the politicians are aware of the problems with interpretation because all of the public sectors need translation work done. She needs the politicians to enter into an agreement so the development can be obligatory.

Carina and the interpretation committee from Translatørforeningen is now urging the Danish Parliament to make a law of the assessment system of the translation qualification. She says: ”We would very much like them to decide that the interpreters in Denmark also have to be professional people like doctors, lawyers and accountants. Like everybody else! We want them to be professional so they can assist professional people”.

Information Box

– In October 2015, Carina and her colleagues published a survey that has been conducting for about a year. The report of the survey says that about 85-90% of all interpreters in Denmark are non-educated.

– They have asked people from the asylum system, both the asylum seekers and the lawyers, to answer some questions about how the interpretation works. Both parties gave them some examples of misunderstandings.

– They asked some of the people in the public sector questions such as: How do you think it works? Are you satisfied, and if not – what is the problem?

– They got some very good and valid answers. The survey was not a quantitative research. The interesting thing is that more than 90% of the people stated that the interpretation doesn’t work, including people in the health sector, in law and in the asylum system.

– There is between 6000-8000 interpreters in Denmark right now but only about 300 of them have been granted the qualification with a master’s degree, and most of them are translating the European languages.

From the report “The Interpretation In The Public Sector” by Carina Graversen and others, Translatørforeningen.

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