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Norway's interpreter costs rise, yet interpreters are underused

Norway's interpreter costs rise, yet interpreters are underused

| Text: Bjørn Lønnum Andreassen, photo: Björn Lindahl

The cost of interpreter services in the public sector has risen sharply in Norway. In 2019 the total cost was 843 million kroner (€85.3m). In six years interpreter costs have gone up by 72%. But not using qualified interpreters at all can quickly become even more costly. New interpreter legislation could improve the situation.

The Norwegian Association of Interpreters chair is Alexandra Therese Solaas. She is an authorised interpreter who perform tasks like interpreting during court cases and police interrogations, as well as translating between Norwegian and English.  So what is behind this sharp increase in public sector interpreter costs? 

“The increase is partly a result of considerable underuse of qualified interpreters. If there is a misunderstanding during interpretation in a public sector case, things might suddenly get more expensive as the case must then be treated again on several levels. In Norway, highly qualified interpreters are a scarce commodity,” says Solaas.

This was also one of the conclusions in the public investigation ahead of the introduction of new interpretation legislation in Norway.

The Norwegian Directorate of Integration and Diversity, IMDi, is the public body for interpreting in the public sector. It is responsible for making sure the public sector has access to qualified interpreters. The IMDi 2019 annual report states:

“In 2018, more than 800,000 interpretation jobs were carried out in the public sector, worth approximately 835 million kroner (€85.3m). The use of qualified interpreters has risen from 38% in 2017 to 42% in 2018. This means a full 58% of the interpretation jobs were carried out by interpreters without documented qualifications in the National Register of Interpreters. Although this is a slight improvement on 2017, the high number of unqualified interpreters represents a challenge both to the rule of law, trust in the public sector and the professionalisation of the interpreter sector.”

Joanna Godlewska

Joanna Godlewska. Foto: Privat

Joanna Godlewska is a state authorised interpreter who studied interpretation with the languages Polish and Russian at the University of Oslo. She also sits on board of the Norwegian Association of Interpreters.

“Interpreters are now being used in areas where they were not used before. The public sector saves a lot of money by using qualified interpreters. I know of cases where unqualified interpreters have done a bad job. I have been asked to check recordings of interrogations where unqualified people have been interpreting. This cost could have been avoided if a qualified interpreter had been used in the first place,” she says.

“It might also cost more when the public sector uses interpreters who are not in the interpreter register. The users of interpreter services must understand that qualified interpreters are the key to good communication, which again will save the public sector a lot of money. Good interpreting safeguards the rule of law, patient security and children’s welfare services,” she says.

New interpreting legislation

Now, for the first time, Norway has got its own legislation regulating the public sector’s responsibilities when using interpreters.

“The legislation was changed in June 2021. The law says qualified interpreters should be used and it defines what a qualified interpreter is,” says Joanna Godlewska. 

The interpreting legislation says that a public body must use an interpreter when it is necessary in order to safeguard the rule of law or to provide secure medical assistance and other public services. Qualified interpreters must be used, meaning interpreters who fulfil the requirements for being listed in the Norwegian Interpreter register. The new legislation means Norway will need far more qualified interpreters than before, even though exceptions can be granted until 31 December 2026.

Qualification of interpreters, including authorisation, education, testing and coursing, has been the responsibility of the Oslo Metropolitan University, but since 2020 the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences has also been running an interpreters’ course. 

At the start of this year, the interpreter register included 1,653 interpreters in 72 languages.

“The legislation classifies interpreters into several categories. It takes four years of training to become an interpreter at level A. Level E is the lowest and for that, you need a two-day course," says Joanna Godlewska.

The pandemic created trouble

The 2020-2021 pandemic has had major consequences for interpreters, and it means statistics are not entirely comparable to previous years. 


85% of all interpreters in Norway had fewer jobs in 2020, according to a survey commissioned by IMDi.

There has been an increase in the use of remote interpretation and on-screen interpretation. Both interpreters and users of interpreters say they are positive to this, despite some technological challenges, according to IMDi.

“By using on-screen interpreting more, the interpreters can work more efficiently and secure good access to interpreter services across the country. The use of on-screen interpreting has only represented 1% of the total,” writes IMDi in their annual report. 

The technology must work

Alexandra Therese Solaas at the Norwegian Association of Interpreters points out that the technology must work.

“It is not good enough to use a mobile telephone and interpret an entire meeting with several parties in a meeting room. You need equipment so that you can hear what is being said. We depend on functioning equipment in order to carry out our work in a responsible way. The courts have suddenly been granted funds for video interrogations, but the technological solution they have today cannot be used for simultaneous interpretation,” she says. 

“The quality of technological solutions are very important. When you as the interpreter cannot hear what is being said because of a bad connection, you cannot do your job. Interpreting using sign language is impossible if the video connection is bad,” says Solaas.

“It is frustrating standing in a court of law and interpret when the sound is bad or you cannot quite hear what is being said. So technological solutions have great advantages, but also some weaknesses. You need to be very aware of both,” she says.

“In meetings, all technology must function properly. If not, you need a good plan B, because the interpreter is not a technician and is not responsible for backup solutions,” Solaas says.

Depends on the situation

Good technical solutions have given many people in many kinds of jobs a good experience with working from home.   

“For interpreters, it depends on the situation where interpreting is needed. It is, for instance, difficult to work from home if you are interpreting in a psychiatric setting, or when children are involved.

Are legal interviews and meetings concerning children’s welfare so sensitive that they must be interpreted by someone who is physically present?

“There are many considerations to take and you need to be in the same room in many situations. There can be big differences between cases, for instance when you are dealing with serious crime. One person might handle having the interpreter on the telephone from somewhere else, while another person might not understand what is happening,” says Alexandra Therese Solaas. 

Corona contrast

The Corona pandemic has led to major changes to the use of interpreters in Norway’s public sector. The number of interpreter jobs was dramatically reduced for several months as a result of the March 2020 lockdown. This was in stark contrast to the increased need for information among the immigrant population and especially among those who do not speak good enough Norwegian, says the IMDi 2020 annual report. 

The dramatic fall in the number of new interpreter jobs, married with an increase in the cancellation of planned interpreter assignments, highlighted the need for more organised working conditions and terms for interpreters in Norway. The pandemic showed how vulnerable the interpreter occupation is, because most practicing interpreters are freelancers, according to the IMDi report. 

Interpreters in Norway have been through a tough time, Solaas tells the Nordic Labour Journal.

“Sign language interpreters are freelancers, and language interpreters have to be freelancers because if you are hired by someone you risk ending up having a conflict of interest. Freelancers had almost no jobs during the pandemic. When we tried to apply for compensation from the welfare administration, it seemed like they did not understand how interpreters work. The way we have been treated has been frustrating, to put it mildly.”

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Interpreters’ working conditions important

Do interpreters need to be present in the conference venue (above), in the doctor’s surgery or in court? Or can they work from home? Only 1% of interpreter jobs in Norway in 2019 were on-screen.


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