Postcard from Northern Europe

Readers may recall my postcard series, which is meant to offer insights into various conference interpreting markets around the world while adding some colour to the Diaries. I’m pleased to say that another one has arrived!

This time, the postcard is from Elisabet, conference interpreter and blogger extraordinaire. She’s drafted some replies to my questions about the life of a conference interpreter in the countries on the northern edge of Europe. So let’s sit back, relax (but not too much, as the sign below warns!), and find out what it’s like to be an interpreter in Europe’s north.

Image credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

You’re sending this postcard from the Nordic countries. Tell me briefly about this place.

This is a postcard from the outskirts of Europe, in the most Northern part of our territory, Longyearbyen. Here, many  inhabitants are armed since polar bears are a part of everyday life. But I digress… the Nordic countries consist of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. Each country has its own national language. Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are closely related, Icelandic a little less, and Finnish has totally different roots. English has a strong position in all Nordic countries, and there is a strong tradition of language learning in general.

Describe for me a typical week in the working life of a Nordic interpreter.

In the countries who are EU members (Denmark, Sweden and Finland) there is a large group of interpreters commuting to the EU every week. If you are lucky to have an assignment at your home base it is nearly always bi-active (to and from two languages) and usually in smaller meetings. There is also a group of interpreters working mostly for the Nordic countries, at the Nordic Council.

I should also mention that community interpreting is strong here, and many of us combine court, community and conference assignments. We are all freelance interpreters. Colleagues will correct me if I’m wrong, but to my knowledge there are no institutions with in-house interpreters.

What opportunities would you say exist for conference interpreters in the North?

As I said above, English is very dominant in the Nordic countries and the tradition has been for individuals to learn foreign languages rather than to rely on interpreting. Conference interpreting boomed with EU membership (and is consequently fairly low in Norway).

Right now there are a lot of movements on the market since many agencies are coming in and try to establish themselves.  In general I would say though that there is a small, but fairly stable market. The “first-generation” of interpreters in Sweden and Finland are retiring now (i.e. the ones who were interpreters before the EU membership in 1995 for Sweden and Finland), so there is a slightly increasing need for new interpreters.

What would you tell a new conference interpreter on the scene to look out for?

Be sure to be trained to work both to and from your languages. Make sure you don’t work for peanuts and that your working conditions are respected. Beware of agencies, make sure you really get what you are claiming, and ALWAYS get a written contract.

What are the main languages used on this market?

English, English and English. There is also a small market for the other major European languages. Asian languages are more used in community settings, same goes for Arabic and African languages. In fact, I don’t know any conference interpreter for Arabic-Swedish, although such a combination would probably be sought after.

Who are the main institutional / private market employers? Are Nordic countries a conference destination?

As I said above, there are no interpreter employers. Interpreters are freelancers and agencies (unfortunately) play a major role. Nordic countries are definitely a conference destination, but mostly with English as lingua franca or interpreting in combinations not including Swedish. But this sounds very pessimistic – there are opportunities for interpreters with Swedish too.

What sort of training opportunities exists in Nordic countries for language specialists? Are there established interpreting schools? Where will conference interpreters working in Nordic countries have trained?

Sweden (TÖI), Finland (University of Helsinki  and University of Turku) and Denmark (Handelshøjskolen) have interpreting schools for conference interpreting. Typically, courses are offered on a needs basis, i.e. not every year, and in some cases not even on a regular basis. Norway has two different training programs for community interpreters. Interpreters in the Nordic countries tend to come from different backgrounds, though. Many have attended interpreting schools throughout Europe.

How about AIIC? How many members are there Nordic countries? What sort of AIIC activities happen there?

There are some 70 AIIC members in the Nordic countries. Denmark has the highest numbers (30), and there is only one member from Iceland. We have a joint Nordic meeting every third year and we rotate the council member between Sweden, Finland and Denmark, and each country also organises one meeting per year. There are not many events, but from time to time we organize more ambitious activities. Our joint Nordic meeting usually features general topic lectures, possibilities for booth exercises from the Nordic languages or study visits.

What features do you think make the Nordic countries unique as an interpreting market? Are you familiar with any other markets that you could compare the Nordic market with?

I think we are similar to many markets in Europe where the EU membership has influenced both the interpreting market, training of interpreters, language demands and so forth. The strong language learning tradition of our market makes it unique in some senses. And maybe the fact that many of us combine different types of interpreting.

Elisabet Tiselius is an AIIC conference interpreter, interpreter trainer and PhD student in Interpreting Studies. She is well-known in the interpreting world as the author of the popular blog Interpretings (she also writes a blog in Swedish). You can find out more about Elisabet on her website or follow her on Twitter at @tulkur.

12 thoughts on “Postcard from Northern Europe

  1. Thank you for interesting interview. I would like to add one more feature that makes Nordic countries special from interpreters´ point of view. I suppose that the fact that the three Scandinavian languages often “go for one” is quite a speciality. It means that delegates use Swedish, Norwegian and Danish equally, without interpretation between these languages, and conference interpreters need to know all these languages well enough to interpret from all these into other languages (often English, Finnish, Icelandic or Russian).

    • That’s interesting, I did not know that! Thanks for sharing.

      Can I assume that they still hire separate Danish, Swedish and Norwegian booths when they need interpretation into those languages? Or do they like to get creative with that as well?

  2. @Kristiina You’re right, I forgot that particularity. @Michelle Yes there are occasions when there are separate booths, but there is a strong Scandinavian tradition that we should understand each other. As more and more people in our countries have other mother tongues it is changing though.

    @Amy I’m not sure I would say HIGHLY sought-after, but there are definitely openings for that combination.

    Thanks for all the kind and interesting comments, and thanks Michelle for having me as a guest.

  3. Pingback: Weekly favorites (Oct 15-21) | Adventures in Freelance Translation

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