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Occupational standards and vocational qualifications for the national certification of the profession of community interpreter in Slovenia

By Tamara Mikolič Južnič and Nike K. Pokorn, Master’s Degree in Translation, University of Ljubljana

“Last week I was making my rounds with a community health nurse. We visited an acquaintance of mine who had just given birth to her first child. It was a routine visit and it went along without any complications. But just before we left, the mother of the new-born took me aside, asked me not to tell anything to the nurse and whispered that she felt overwhelmed and had urges to end it all by killing herself and the baby. I kept that for myself.  Now, I have troubles sleeping, I keep checking in with her family to make sure she and the baby are OK. I don’t know what to do!”  

Lindinta (not her real name), a cultural mediator and an interpreter for Albanian, who has been working in healthcare settings for years in Slovenia, shared this experience with us at a TRAMIG workshop, dedicated to community interpreter teacher training. Her anguish made us all aware how irresponsible it is to ask individuals with migration background to interpret in highly sensitive settings without providing them with any guidance and any training beforehand. In addition to that, Lindita was reluctant to take on advice from interpreter trainers, believing that interpreters are those who translate only words, while she saw herself performing the tasks of an intercultural mediator, mediating between the Albanian and Slovene culture. It became clear to all interpreter trainers and interpreters present at the workshop that since we, specialist in translation and interpreting, have not done enough in this field, others, such as specialists in migration, who know very little about interpreting, have intervened instead. This blog is about different progressive actions we have taken in Slovenia to respond to the situation where no training and guidance have been provided to those who interpret in public-service settings.

Traditionally, Slovenia was not a destination country for any kind of migrants, except for the people from the former Yugoslav republics, who came in search for work, in particular from 1970s onwards, or who were escaping the war in 1990s. Since in the socialist Yugoslavia most speakers in Slovenia and also the vast majority of migrants spoke or could at least understand Serbo-Croatian, the unofficial Yugoslav lingua franca, language barriers were never considered a great problem. With the dissolution of the socialist Yugoslavia the situation changed: if Slovene speakers can still (to a varying degree of success) practice intercomprehension with the speakers of Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin, and perhaps even Macedonian, the communication collapses when they encounter Albanian speakers, spoken by immigrants from Kosovo. In addition to that, as in several other countries all over Europe, in recent years migrants from other linguistic groups, such as Arabic, Persian, Chinese, have started settling in Slovenia. Consequently, in Slovene public services, in particular in healthcare, the need for community interpreting services became pressing. The lack of a specific study programme of community interpreting on the one hand, and a severe shortage of people who could speak both Slovene and the languages of refugees and migrants on the other hand, led to a situation where the task of bridging language gaps in high-risk situations such as asylum procedures, healthcare encounters, police or legal settings, was left in the hands of anyone who could (or claimed to be able to) speak the two languages. Since until 2018 the higher education institutions educating translators and interpreters in the country did not provide any interpreter or translator training for the languages of newly arrived migrants, and dealt with public-service interpreting and translation only in research, advice and support to healthcare institutions were provided by a group of migration specialists coming from the fields of sociology and cultural anthropology. As a consequence, two different profiles with similar yet different tasks, competences and ethics started working side by side: community interpreters and intercultural mediators. This is not unique to Slovenia: the two professions seem to be competing also in other European markets: besides Kommunaldolmetscher/innen, there are also Sprach- und Integrationsmittler/in, besides interprete di comunità, there is also a mediatore interculturale, to name just a few. Because of the partial overlap of the profiles and blurred distinction between them, we have decided to define the two profiles, and to officially certify both professions in Slovenia by developing occupational standards and national vocational qualifications (NVQs) for each of them.

After much collaborative work, in 2020, two NVQs were approved by the Ministry of Labour, Family, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities of the Republic of Slovenia: the National Vocational Qualification for Albanian Language and the National Vocational Qualification for Intercultural Mediation. Besides occupational standards, also the catalogues of professional knowledge and skills were formulated, in which specific standards of professional knowledge and skills are described. The Slovene versions of the standards of community interpreters for Albanian and intercultural mediators are available online, while the English translations are available in the TRAMIG monograph.

The main differences between the two standards are particularly visible in the catalogues where the key tasks and the acquired knowledge and skills for each profile are defined. The NVQ for community interpreters for the Albanian language lists among the key tasks the following competences:

  • Consecutive interpreting, chuchotage and sight translation plus translation of short texts relevant for interpreting.
  • Interpreting and translation of discourse in different registers and from different fields,
  • Using suitable tools and technologies for translation and interpreting.
  • Acquiring additional information for the field they interpret.
  • Communicating and establishing contacts with colleagues, professionals and end-users.

Among the most important knowledge and skills the catalogue for community interpreters lists the ability to:

  • interpret and translate texts connected to the interpreting task from Albanian to Slovene and vice versa,
  • interpret and translate texts connected to the interpreting task as accurately as possible with no unnecessary additions or omissions,
  • listen carefully, use various memory techniques,
  • adhere to basic features of interpreting, i.e., initial introduction of all participants, positioning, turn-taking,
  • select and provide interpreting suitable in the given circumstances: consecutive interpreting for a dialogue or a lengthy exchange supported by note-taking, chuchotage or sight interpreting,
  • use different techniques of note-taking,
  • recognise situations when a primary-speaker position has to be assumed and communication interrupted (e.g., asking for clarification, pointing out cultural misunderstanding),
  • respect different roles of participants (distinguish between the role of an interpreter and that of a healthcare provider, etc.),
  • use Albanian for different language users and adapt it to their age, gender, regional background as well as socio-economic status,
  • understand different language varieties of Albanian (e.g., different dialects, idiomatic expressions, etc.) and different registers (e.g., less formal spoken discourse, formal standard language, etc.),
  • use register appropriate for the given situation and the type of discourse,
  • use appropriate terminology, i.e., terminology used in healthcare or educational settings, administrative procedures or police proceedings,
  • know the field they interpret,
  • respect cultural differences and respond properly,
  • understand specific behaviour, gestures, tone of verbal and non-verbal communication,
  • show awareness of different culture-specific roles of professionals and identities in different cultures,
  • seek reliable information required for interpreting,
  • make an efficient use of document and terminology sources (e.g., terminology databases, language corpora, etc.),
  • properly assess reliable documents and sources available online and in other media,
  • create their own terminology databases needed for the interpreted field,
  • be polite, respectful and tactful,
  • recognise their own cultural, political, religious and other prejudices and refrain from them in interpreting and communication with their clients,
  • work efficiently with people from different cultures, respect other cultures and recognise cultural differences,
  • respect the rules of collaboration with other participants of interpreting (e.g., in healthcare settings),
  • know how to obtain information on the nature of the meeting/conversation to be interpreted and know how to agree with other participants on the behaviour protocol and positioning of all the participants.

The same list of competences was used in preparation of two additional NVQs for community interpreters for the Persian language and one for Arabic, which we hope will be certified in the following months. These languages have been identified as the most critical barriers in healthcare and other sectors of public services.

The NVQ for intercultural mediators emphasized other competences:

  • Establish and facilitate intercultural communication within and outside of institutions related to the integration of migrants.
  • Provide information to target groups/migrants on their rights and duties in Slovenia.
  • Promote intercultural dialogue between migrants and other members of the Slovene society.

The intercultural mediators should be able to:

  • provide intercultural and language mediation in Slovene and the language of migrants in education and vocational training, employment, healthcare and social security, housing, public administration, etc.,
  • use different modes of language mediation,
  • understand most common barriers to the integration of migrants in Slovenia,
  • use and adapt terminology on intercultural mediation,
  • show awareness of social, cultural and economic characteristics (including linguistic, religious, political and other) of at least one foreign country/territory and constantly strive to improve their knowledge through lifelong learning,
  • understand how public services work,
  • understand different beliefs and practices of the migrants in need of intercultural mediation and understand culture-specific beliefs and practices present within and outside of institutions in Slovenia,
  • understand the structure and activities of state and public administration and other organisations in Slovenia, and the migrants’ territories/countries of origin for whom intercultural mediation is provided,
  • know categories or statuses of migrants and understand the rights and duties of migrants in Slovenia,
  • assist migrants to get acquainted with the structure and activities of state and public administration and other organisations in Slovenia,
  • assist migrants to exercise their rights and duties in Slovenia related to education, employment, healthcare, administrative procedures, social security, etc.,
  • understand social, cultural and economic characteristics (including linguistic, religious, political and other) of at least one foreign country/territory of origin of the migrants and improve their knowledge in the process of lifelong learning,
  • understand the importance of integration as a two-way process and show ability to convey this to the target group and other residents of Slovenia in the process of intercultural mediation,
  • promote social networking,
  • understand the importance of intercultural dialogue in various fields: cultural, social, economic, etc.,
  • respect and promote gender equality,
  • understand migration processes and the importance of migrant integration,
  • make workers in various organisations and other citizens aware of the cultures of migrants and facilitate them in developing an appropriate attitude towards the cultural habits, practices and beliefs of the migrants.

As we can see, the NVQ for intercultural mediators is not language specific, in fact, it does not require a high level of mastery of any language, and focuses on social work and counselling instead. Although intercultural mediators also work towards overcoming language barriers, they do not aim to provide interpretation between two parties who do not understand each other, but rather strive to explain the healthcare, legal or school system of the host country and by doing so they empower the users of public services. Community interpreters, on the other hand, ensure accurate transfer of the source language message to the target language, and are therefore indispensable where precision in expression is of utmost importance, i.e., in all high-risk settings, like for example at hospital admissions, history-taking, discharge, asylum interview.

We felt, however, that, due to a lack of any education programme for community interpreters in Slovenia, we need to provide some further guidance for the candidates who might decide to take the vocational qualification exam, and for those who already practice the profession of a community interpreter.  We have therefore joined forces with four professional associations of interpreters (Association of Translators and Interpreters of Slovenia, STRIDON – the Slovene Association of Translation Studies, Association of Slovene Sign Language Interpreters, Slovene Association of Conference interpreters) and wrote the Slovene Code of Ethics for Community Interpreters, which outlines the desirable behaviour of community interpreters, i.e.,  how they “should” work professionally, and the Slovene Standards of Practice for Community Interpreters, which provide examples of good practice and describe “how” an individual interpreter implements the ethical principles in practice.

We are aware of the shortcomings of every code of ethics and that when faced with an ethical dilemma, interpreters, such as Lindita, should consider besides different deontological documents also the possible risks and the consequences of every decision they take. Nevertheless, we hope that with the qualification and the deontological documents we have managed to make a small step towards a greater professionalisation of community interpreting practice, a higher quality service and eventually also towards a more successful inclusion of non-Slovene speaking citizens of Slovenia.  

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