Norway leads the way?

Helle Gulowsen reports on a historic step  forward as Norway regulates interpreting in the public sector

Governmental involvement in the provision of public service interpreting (PSI) in Norway is not new. The state has long recognised the crucial role of interpreters in ensuring equal access to public services and the right to due process for all, but it is only now that this has been enshrined in law.

The act relating to the responsibility of public bodies to use interpreters (the Interpreting Act1), which came into force on 1 January 2022, is the culmination of years of progressive efforts and advocacy work.

At the forefront of this campaign is the Directorate of Integration and Diversity (IMDi).2 Established in 2006 as a specialist directorate and national competence centre responsible for integration, IMDi acts as an advisory body and is tasked with implementing government policy. With PSI provision among its key responsibilities, its remit includes improving quality and establishing national standards in areas such as interpreter training, access, provision, use and pay.

IMDi reports annually on the need for and use of interpreters in the public sector with the purpose of providing data on the proportion of assignments carried out by qualified interpreters, the languages most in demand and the areas that lack appropriate provision, among other things. Its findings over recent years are commensurate with an inadequate legislative mandate, and include shortcomings in the accreditation system, a lack of qualified interpreters and the highly inappropriate practice of using children or other family members as interpreters.

The right to due process

In view of this, and in recognition of its responsibility to meet the multilingual communication needs of an increasingly diverse society, the Norwegian government established an Interpreting Services Review Committee in 2013. It was tasked with producing an official report outlining a coordinated and effective organisation of high-quality PSI, and had a mandate to consider “the fact that while the public authorities spend substantial resources on interpreting services, the current use of resources is not necessarily commensurate with the quality of the interpretation. Interpreters are underused, qualification requirements are lacking and there are poor procedures for booking interpreters.”

It continued: “There is significant variation between sectors when it comes to the general conditions for interpretation assignments, for example with respect to hourly rates and the length of the assignments. With the growing need for interpreting services and the requirement for competitive bidding for contracts, several public agencies issue calls for tenders for interpreting services. Experience shows that it is difficult to control the quality of the service when a contract has been won through a bidding competition. There is no organised system for interpreting in the public sector across the sectors.”3 

The committee concluded that the principles of due process protection and the equality of language minorities were threatened; that the inadequate and incorrect use of interpreters resulted in miscarriages of justice, incorrect medical treatments, case processing errors, low efficiency and increased use of resources; that a large proportion of the interpreters used did not have documented interpreting qualifications; and that the legislation which governs communication via an interpreter was fragmented and often not uniformly interpreted. 

It therefore proposed that the public service providers’ obligation to use qualified interpreters should be enshrined in a separate Interpreting Act with a view to guaranteeing the right to the due process of law and equal treatment. The four-year escalation plan it presented became policy, and the new Interpreting Act was finally formed.

Accreditation and National Register

So, what does this entail? Among the legislation’s provisions is the mandatory use of a Norwegian National Register of Interpreters,4 although this can be circumvented if a qualified interpreter is

not available. The register has been in operation since 2005, but a new and upgraded version was launched in 2020. It provides an overview of practising interpreters’ qualifications and aims to increase the availability of interpreters who have met certain criteria, improve access to assignments, and improve transparency in terms of competency levels and vetting.

While the register is built on the same overarching principles as the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI) in the UK, the Norwegian version is administered and operated by IMDi, and hence it is government run and funded. Whether or not this is a better system is a matter of opinion, but there is no suggestion that PSI needs cannot be adequately met

by voluntary or NGO provision. Heavy private sector involvement, on the other hand, will always carry a significant risk of placing profit above quality and thus undermine individuals’ rights to access to crucial services.

Although this legislation has been long in the making, it is a welcome and commendable move by the Norwegian government. When faced with a sharp rise in the cost of PSI, they did not automatically assume that the use of professional, high-quality interpreters was to blame. Instead, the wider cost of using unqualified resources was recognised, and a view was taken that interpreting must be seen as an integral part of the public authority’s duties, and that the necessary resources must be allocated so that service providers can communicate through qualified interpreters.


Notes

1 Lov om offentlige organers ansvar for bruk av tolk mv. (tolkeloven); cutt.ly/tolkeloven

2 www.imdi.no/en

3 NOU 2014: 8 ‘Interpretin­g in the Public Sector – A question relating to the right to due process of law and equal treatment’; cutt.ly/regjeringen

4 Nasjonalt tolkeregister; www.tolkeregisteret.no