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Can language technology make Nordic cooperation easier?

| By Björn Lindahl, Editor-in-chief

The Nordic labour markets are starting to heat up. Unemployment in Denmark has come down below where it was before the pandemic. In Iceland, wages have been rising so fast that the country has had the highest wage increase in Europe.

Lifting restrictions is about more than returning to normal. There is a sharp increase in demand for some products, while global shipping is fighting with the aftermath of closed harbours in China. The car industry and others are affected by a computer chip shortage. Meanwhile, much of the Eastern European labour force has gone home, including hundreds of thousands of transport workers.

In Iceland, wages have risen more than in other countries. The municipal sector has seen the greatest increase, somewhat surprisingly. Until August this year, the increase was nearly 8%. But that does not surprise Katrín Olafsdóttir, assistant professor of economy at the University of Reykjavik. 

“Wages always increase more in Iceland than in other countries. There is regularly a discussion on trying to do this like other Nordic countries, with a more moderate salary increase. We just simply haven’t managed to get there,” she says.

In Denmark, one of the consequences of the labour shortage has been that the country’s film industry is now short of everything from scriptwriters to actors. As a result, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation stopped what was going to be one of Danish film’s largest productions.  

While the pandemic forced us to travel less, we watch more TV. Streaming services like Netflix have become the new film giants, that increasingly make their own content. One of the largest successes right now is the Korean “Squid Game”.  

That means unusual translations – no longer the usual translation of English to other languages or the other way around. Language technology is this edition’s theme and we look at various aspects of this. The technological development has been phenomenal, and the pandemic gave digital solutions an extra boost.

“The restrictions opened our eyes. Today we can run a production in front of a large audience here at The Black Diamond while transmitting it live to libraries and upper secondary schools in Denmark. We reach people across the country without them needing to be in Copenhagen,” says Lise Bach Hansen, Head of Talks & Literature at the Royal Danish Library.

Can new technology also help create closer cultural contacts between the Nordics, if language barriers can be overcome through technology? Or is language technology a further threat to the smaller languages, like Greenlandic and Sami? 

Because in order to fully use the new language tools that allow your mobile to guess the words you want to text, to ask your digital assistant questions, to get your mobile camera to translate a sign, or get it to understand what is being said in a foreign language, you want to be able to communicate with your smartphone in your own language. That is not the case today. Siri does not speak Greenlandic and there is no option to choose a keyboard in Greenlandic.

Translating costs are spiraling in most of the Nordic languages. In Norway, they rose by 72% in six years. But is the problem actually the opposite – that not enough qualified interpreters are being used? Despite the pandemic, on-screen interpreting makes up only 1% of all translating jobs in Norway. 

The Nordic countries have languages that are well documented and studied, with enormous collections of texts and words. In Norway, there are 50 billion words and Finland has 24 billion, according to Krister Lindén, head of the Finnish language bank. 200 years of newspapers have been added and the goal for the “Donate speech” campaign is to log 10,000 hours of spoken language in all dialects and language variants. This is hugely valuable for those who want to develop new language tools, but licenses and fees also limit what can be used.

“The licenses are too expensive for us to be able to afford them. We can dream about publishing the Greenlandic-English dictionary containing 100,000 words, but it would cost too much,” says Beatrine Heilmann, at the Greenlandic language secretariat.


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