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Deaf Interpreters in Denmark and Finland: An Illuminating Contrast

Denmark and Finland exemplify contrasting approaches to DIs and HIs. While roadblocks and resistance often hinder DIs in Denmark, having HIs and DIs study together in Finland leads to mutual cooperation.

Deaf Interpreters in Denmark and Finland: An Illuminating Contrast

Note: Anna Mindess, an American hearing interpreter wrote this post, incorporating interviews with Didde Nylander, a hearing Danish sign language interpreter and Markus Aro, a Finnish Deaf interpreter.

Looking through the eyes of people from other cultures, I believe, can provide a clearer perspective on our own situation. Recently, I’ve gotten a glimpse of two very different stances — regarding DIs and HIs — in Denmark and Finland. I hope sharing them will allow us to reexamine our own American struggles.

[Click to view post in ASL]

[Click to view post in International Sign Language]

Opening the Conversation

In 2008, I was invited to present several lectures in Denmark. For the last one, at the Deaf cultural center in the town of Castberggaard, before an audience of Deaf community members, I had the help of two wonderful Danish Deaf Interpreters, Bo Hårdell and Janne Niemelä. They translated my ASL into Danish SL so smoothly that I felt an effortless connection with my audience. On the train back to Copenhagen after the lecture, I thanked Bo and Janne again, adding that with their professionalism and language skills, they must surely receive many requests to work. They shook their heads and explained that in Denmark they felt their skills as DIs were not really appreciated. I was dismayed, but not that surprised, considering that many American DIs face the same challenges here.

Anna Mindess
Anna Mindess

A few months ago, I was contacted by a hearing Danish interpreter, Didde Nylander, who read my Street Leverage article Are Hearing Interpreters Responsible to Pave the Way for Deaf Interpreters?  Didde is actively involved in furthering the goals of DIs in Denmark. She recounted a familiar narrative of Danish Deaf people explaining and clarifying for each other in school and later in Deaf Clubs; and also the hurdles they currently face trying to be accepted as professional interpreters.

A “Shadow Profession”: Challenges for Deaf Interpreters in Denmark

Denmark’s first official interpreter training program was established in 1986 and now hearing graduates can earn a professional degree. “But what about Deaf interpreters?” I asked Didde.

Didde: Until recently it has mainly been a ‘shadow profession’ operating below the awareness of most hearing interpreters and even most Deaf people, themselves. Even the Deaf professionals (e.g. teachers and social workers) who act as interpreters are not always aware that is what they are doing.

While it is clear that Deaf people are serving as interpreters in Denmark, Didde tells me they have been effectively barred from enrolling in the country’s only interpreter training program (ITP).

Didde: So far, Deaf people cannot be accepted because of a clause in the program description stating that ‘the aim is to train interpreters to work between spoken Danish and Danish SL.’ When two Deaf persons applied for the program in 2011, they were accepted but asked to wait a year so the program could adapt their curriculum.  In 2012, however, the Ministry of Education rejected requests to change the curriculum for Deaf students, because they assumed that Deaf interpreting students could not complete the coursework on their own, but only if a hearing interpreter, in essence, did all the work for them. They likened it to a mute person who wanted to become an opera singer, but would need a speaking proxy to do the actual singing.

The training program finally proposed that the Deaf students could audit classes, but could not take the final exams, which meant they would not become ‘qualified interpreters’. The two DIs quit the program, then were accepted into EUMASLI instead. (European Masters in Sign Language Interpreting). 

Hearing Interpreter Reactions in Denmark

I asked Didde about the majority of Danish HIs’ reactions to the unequal opportunities offered to DIs.

Didde: When they applied, these two interpreters, Vivien Batory and Bo Hårdell, had already been working as interpreters for about ten years for foreign visitors and at international conferences. But I don’t think most HIs even knew this took place, because we did not attend those events. The HIs who did attend were not concerned because these were not jobs we would have been assigned anyhow, since we did not know SLs other than Danish.

What did catch the HIs’ attention was when Vivien and Bo joined a team of HIs who had been interpreting television news broadcasts for several years. When their work became very visible, many HIs felt threatened.

Didde: Some HIs stated that they did not see the benefit of adding DIs, as they felt they were already doing a great job. Many took the position that they could not approve of DIs because they were not ‘trained.’  Fears multiplied: ‘Will the DIs take our work?‘ ‘Will we be ‘reduced’ to positions as feeders?’

Didde Nylander
Didde Nylander

As Danish Deaf interpreters increasingly worked in diverse settings, the Deaf community started to view interpretation as a viable profession for Deaf people. In 2012, the Deaf Association established a ‘DI project,’ in which 13 Deaf persons were given a course on interpretation and employed to work as freelance interpreters. They mainly worked in community settings, which made them more visible to HIs, which led to even more resistance within the HI community and emotional debates in our national interpreters’ association (the FTT).

In 2015, the national authority paying for community interpretations offered to certify the now 10 Deaf interpreters in the project, plus Vivien and Bo. So finally, Denmark has its first group of certified DIs, but that doesn’t mean they are fully accepted and equal to HIs. Currently, although several agencies have contracts with freelance DIs, they are certified to interpret only in pre-approved situations, which means a special application has to be made for each interpretation, explaining the exceptional need for a DI. And DIs still cannot take the full ITP.

Didde told me that earlier this year, there was much debate in FTT as to whether the certified Deaf interpreters could even become members. Some HIs supported the idea, while others were strongly against it. A large group was undecided.  One concern Didde noted was, “whether we would need to use SL during our meetings. Many HIs say they are able to express themselves more freely in their first language, spoken Danish”. The issue of whether DIs can be members of FTT will be decided in a membership ballot this fall.

Didde: On an official level, we have come a long way. But has our cultural knowledge of Deaf people developed as completely? It seems to me that there is still a residue of old notions of Deaf people being inferior to the hearing majority and having limited professional options. The emergence of the DI profession has raised many attitudinal and cultural questions, which we need to examine with openness and curiosity. Our biggest challenge now is to secure a good relationship between HIs and DIs.

I told Didde I see several areas where DIs in the U.S. are ahead of those in Denmark, but at the same time, there is still resistance from certain HIs. Since I have heard similar stories regarding other countries, I hazarded a guess that this might be a worldwide phenomenon.  

A Different Story in Finland

Didde corrected my overly broad assumption based on research she did in Finland, where a different path seems to have led to a more cooperative relationship between HIs and DIs.  She suggested I interview Markus Aro, a Finnish Deaf Interpreter.

Markus shared with me that Finland has a history of using Deaf people to interpret for Deaf Blind people. In the 1980’s, there were not enough hearing interpreters to do tactile interpreting. So Deaf people were drafted. But the Deaf Blind consumers wanted their Deaf interpreters to get trained. The Finnish Association of the Deaf created a 175-hour course to train and certify a group of DIs in Deaf Blind interpreting.

Interpreter Education with HIs and DIs in Finland

Then, in 2001, when HUMAK (The University of Applied Sciences) announced that their four-year interpreter training program would welcome both Deaf and hearing students, the first six Deaf interpreters joined that program. Of the original six, four successfully completed the program, (Markus was one of them).

Besides trying to attract Deaf people into their program, HUMAK’s target group is hearing students with no experience in the Deaf community. Markus told me that most hearing students enter HUMAK at 19-20 years old, without knowing sign language. Since the HIs come in with little or no previous knowledge about Deaf people and then are thrust into a collaborative learning environment with Deaf students also studying to become interpreters, they learn “good attitudes” from the beginning and early on get used to working with Deaf interpreters. While the hearing students spend much of their first two years learning Finnish Sign Language, the Deaf students focus on written Finnish and English.

Markus:  The courses for Deaf and hearing students differ only slightly. They try to make as few adjustments as possible so all students receive the same education. Linguistics is taught separately to hearing and Deaf students, but they have many courses together, such as Interpretation Theory. The third and fourth years focus on interpreting skills for all students. There is a folk high school for Deaf immigrants, in the same location as HUMAK, where the Deaf students practice interpretation with the immigrant students.

“It was a good experience studying together with HIs, “ Markus told me. “And we figured out how to team together.”

Markus: When I studied at HUMAK, there hadn’t yet been a lot of analysis of best practices for HI and DI teams. The teachers informed us that we would just have to work it out together.  We told the HIs we didn’t just want them to be ‘mindless feeders.’ It’s all about teamwork and the need to keep checking in and seeing how to support each other.

Community Buy-In is Key

Markus Aro
Markus Aro

After graduating, however, the DIs found there was not much work for them.

Markus: Part of the problem was a feeling among the Deaf Community, ‘Why do we need Deaf interpreters?’ So we explained about Deaf blind, International Sign, translation from written Finnish into SL and immigrants. Gradually, the Deaf Community became more open and after a couple of years their attitude was much more positive. Most of the HIs were happy to work with DIs, but a few had some resistance.

Ironically, a shortsighted governmental policy helped some HIs appreciate DIs’ valuable skills.  In 2012, the Finnish government (who pays for the majority of interpreting services) declared that Deaf immigrants would only be entitled to DI services for one year, assuming that after a year, the immigrants would learn enough Finnish SL that HIs alone could satisfy their communication needs.  

Markus: After the one-year mark, HIs found themselves on their own with these Deaf immigrants, wishing the DIs could come help them interpret. If, however, these immigrants went to a police station or a hospital, those entities can pay for Deaf interpreters from their own funds. Then the HIs were again relieved and grateful for DIs’ help.

Markus concludes: “We need HIs! We can’t work without them. We need to work together so Deaf people get the best access.”

In Conclusion

I think there is much we can learn from these two narratives. Markus credits the fact that HIs start HUMAK with a “blank slate” of no previous knowledge of sign language or Deaf Culture as being key to their openness to learning together with Deaf colleagues. Meanwhile, in North America, we seem to be pushing for a higher bar of language and cultural competency as prerequisites for entering ITP students.


**This article and its ASL and IS translations were made possible thanks to the contributions of many people across the world: Didde Nylander, Markus Aro, Ryan Shephard, Nana Marie Søltoft, Bo Hårdell,, the Danish Deaf Association and Damon Timm.

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Questions for Consideration

1) Which do you think is the best approach?

2) Is this a generational issue? (i.e., when many of us older interpreters were trained, there were no “Deaf Interpreters” so it may seem jarring to introduce a whole new element into an established system –even though Deaf people have been “interpreting for each other” forever? Will the younger generation have an easier time accepting Deaf interpreters?

3) For readers from other countries, what is your experience in training Deaf and Hearing interpreters? Any tips for us?

Related Posts

Nigel Howard – Deaf Interpreters and the World’s Stage

Janis Cole – How the Deaf Interpreter Conference Clarifies the Role and Trajectory of Deaf Interpreters

Nigel Howard | Deaf Interpreters: The State of Inclusion

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International Collaboration: Should Sign Language Interpreters Do More?

Deb Russell

What is the role of sign language interpreters in supporting other interpreters in other countries, and what strategies can reinforce Deaf community and interpreter collaborative work?

As President of the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI), I am often asked these questions, as well as why I chose to be part of an international organization.  Being part of the development of WASLI has been an incredible experience filled with opportunities to work with, and learn from, other volunteer board members from every region of the world. The association in its short six years has been able to create a network of interpreters throughout many countries, and we have tried to model collaboration between Deaf associations and sign language interpreters, at every step of the way.


Our work with WASLI is supported by the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD), solidified by one of our most important milestones – the signing of the Joint Statement between our organizations. The agreement was signed at the WASLI 2007 conference in Segovia, and every interpreter attending the conference placed his or her signature on the historic statement. I encourage all sign language interpreters to review the document, as it is an explicit statement that guides us in order to reach our common goals.  In that agreement, we identified that we would work towards the establishment of sign language interpreter associations in countries where there are none, and establish regional networks of interpreters.  The statement stresses the importance of joint working, close liaison and transparent communication between interpreter and Deaf organizations, at the local, national, regional and international levels.  Finally, it also states we will share resources with emerging countries.

That important step then led to similar agreements being reached between national association of interpreters and Deaf people, including the National Association of the Deaf and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf , signing an MOU at the RID conference in Philadelphia.  But, while the agreements are a wonderful step forwards, they must translate into positive action among associations.

How Can I support International Development Work?

One:  Creating Positive Relationships

The agreements apply to the local level, and so one of the first things we can do is ensure that we are continually contributing to positive relationships among the interpreters with whom we work, and within the Deaf community we serve. These positive relationships start and are sustained by:  regular participation at Deaf community events, acting as an ally on issues of importance (example: interpreters attending public rallies in Canada about the closure of VRS services and the impact on Deaf people), volunteering your skills for Deaf community projects (example: translation of ASL letters, committee work, fundraising), and knowing your local Deaf community.

By knowing your local Deaf community, I mean understanding the issues impacting them, their hopes and dreams for their community, and where they stand on interpreting issues.  What do they expect of interpreters?  Allowing yourself to be known as a person not just a service provider. We cannot model the nature of collaboration between Deaf people and sign language interpreters to others at the regional or international levels if we don’t practice those behaviours in our home communities.

The theme of the 2011 WASLI conference in Durban was Think Globally, Act Locally, exemplified this notion.  Our keynote speaker, Colin Allen, now the President of WFD, asked delegates to pay attention to both global developments and local contexts to result in action that betters our communities.   An example he cited was the international policy milestone of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).  This global policy provides the best guide for people seeking to improve the quality of sign language interpreting services and satisfy the needs of the Deaf communities in local contexts.  By extension then, each of us could take the step to become familiar with this document, as it is a document that impacts Deaf people as they advocate for their human rights and services.

Many countries around the world are now using the UNCRPD to work with governments and institutions in order to recognize national sign languages and to support linguistic research about these minority languages, and the Deaf communities that use them. When interpreters are familiar with the language and the power of the UN Convention they are in a better place to support others who are advocating for positive change in emerging countries.

Two:  Become Familiar

The second action sign language interpreters can take is to become familiar with the work of the WASLI Educational Task Force.  One of the most common requests WASLI receives from countries that do not have interpreter programs is for curricula and resources.  Our joint statement with WFD indicates we will share resources with emerging countries.  This begs the questions of what and how, which led to the Educational Task Force that worked for the past three years to create guidelines.  The guidelines stress the need to recognize the crucial role of local Deaf communities in preserving their sign language(s), and for all program development to occur with the Deaf community. By reviewing these guidelines, interpreters interested in international development can think carefully about the training they will offer in other countries, in order to involve local Deaf communities and interpreters, ultimately with the goal of building capacity within the local context.

The document begins with a philosophical statement:

“…Interpreter educators from countries with established interpreter education will collaborate with educators from countries where interpreter training is not available or is newly developing.  Educators will work together to design effective practices and deliver quality education.  They will do so in a manner that incorporates local expertise in the cultural, linguistic, social and political conditions that affect teaching and practising signed language interpreting in that country. The goal of collaboration is to ensure accessibility, relevance and effectiveness of training in diverse contexts while maintaining the integrity of national signed languages, customs and norms.”

The aim of these collaborative efforts with local Deaf and hearing community members, Deaf and hearing interpreters, and national Deaf and Deaf-Blind representatives is the development of expertise and empowerment of local personnel to lead the establishment of interpreter education in their respective countries and to support existing and developing national associations of signed language interpreters.

Three:  Model International Collaboration

There are several models where sign language interpreters from abroad have collaborated effectively with other regions in order to offer training that is consistent with these “do with, not do for” guidelines created by the WASLI Educational Task Force, and the document highlights examples from Kosovo, Mexico, Colombia and Kenya. By learning about these ways of interacting in other countries, we can lessen the “footprint” of North American ways, ensuring that ASL does not become the default language of use.  Philemon Akach, an interpreter and linguist from Kenya, speaks to language colonization in his paper published in the first WASLI conference proceedings, and all of us can learn a great deal from his perspectives on this crucial issue.

If you don’t own the conference proceedings, they are available through the WASLI website.

How Can I Change the World?

Individual Membership

North America is fortunate to have interpreter programs, researchers contributing to the knowledge about interpreting, and organizations that support the development of the profession.  By purchasing an individual membership in WASLI you support the many projects in our strategic plan, for example, the task group that are developing communicating protocols for countries that are dealing with natural disasters.  Chilean Deaf associations and sign language interpreters had to take governments to court in order to gain access to sign language interpreters on television during an earthquake, while other countries have been able to work effectively with media during these times.  By collecting effective practices from the global community, they will produce guidelines that can be used proactively so that Deaf people have access to information, the most basic of human rights.


Did you know that you could also donate membership fees for sign language interpreters in another country?  I choose to support a group of interpreters from Ukraine and it costs me less than five cups of tea.  The result is that we are now building a network of interpreters in former Soviet countries and providing them access to materials and documents.  Our membership fees are based on GDP formulas, similar to WFD, so while your membership will be less than $50 a year, you can cover the fees for an interpreter from an emerging country for as little as $6.00.  What if RID donated $1.00 of every member’s dues to WASLI or your local affiliate chapter did the same?

Sponsor Delegates

Or you as a group of sign language interpreters could choose to start raising funds to sponsor a delegate to our next conference in 2015.  Sponsoring delegates from emerging countries is an amazing gift that has a ripple effect. Over the years we have seen interpreters return to their communities with energy, ideas, networks of colleagues, and tools to further develop interpreting in their country, resulting in over 40 new interpreter associations in just 6 years.  One of our 2011 sponsored delegates in South Africa spoke of it being a week of “firsts” for him – the first time to see the ocean, to be on an airplane, to see a Deaf interpreter working, to attend a conference about interpreting, and his first time to know that sign language interpreting was a profession.

You can contribute to that kind of life-changing experience.

Attend Conference

In short, there are so many things that North American interpreters can, and I would argue, should do to support the development of sign language interpreting at the global level.  One of the most powerful ways that you can learn from others is to attend a WASLI conference and listen to the heart felt stories of interpreters as they present their country report.  We have heard about sign language interpreters who walk 2 hours to do an interpreting assignment, and never expect to be remunerated, to the challenges of working as an interpreter amidst the Israeli/Palestine conflict, to the training partnerships between interpreter associations from Colombia and an Ontario chapter of the Canadian national organization, AVLIC.


Finally, WASLI has a devoted group of translators, thanks to Rafael Trevino.  He has been a tireless volunteer, bringing together people who donate their time to provide translation in Arabic, Spanish, French, Russian, and so on. Recently, Christopher Stone and Robert Adam, from the UK, accepted the role of translation coordinators for International Sign (IS).  Our goal is to be able to get many of our documents into IS which will again increase the knowledge sharing with others for whom English is not their first language.  If you are able to offer translation support, be it in a written language or in IS, that is a huge contribution to international development.

Be Part of the Movement

Having a global focus in our changing world is an opportunity awaiting all of us, and I hope that you will embrace the ways in which you can be part of the movement to shape sign language interpreting internationally, and be shaped by experiences of others around the world.

Will you be part of the movement?