Over the last thirty years Deaf people in Norway have obtained extensive rights to sign language interpreting. During this period, a public national interpreting service has been established to cope with the growing demands for interpreters. However, little is known about how this development has influenced interpreting in different contexts.

This paper addresses questions concerning the legal protection of deaf people facing the criminal justice system. A central issue of concern is what kind of communicative barriers Deaf people encounter. An empirical study is presented where sixteen strategically recruited informants participated: nine sign language interpreters and seven representatives from the Norwegian criminal justice system. The methodological approach was qualitative, open-ended interviews.

The results indicate that Deaf people benefit from the professionalization of the interpreters in many ways. At the same time, as a profession, interpreters have a responsibility for defining their role. It is questionable whether or not interpreters always make professional decisions in deaf people's best interest.


In many ways the development of a functional sign language interpreting service for Deaf1 people in Norway is a story of success and political achievement. As Deaf people's legal rights to an interpreter have been steadily extended to the point where they are fairly unrestricted, the Norwegian government has established a national public interpreting service designed to cope with the demands for interpreters. Very little research has been conducted, however, to investigate what these changes mean for Deaf people in Norway.

The study presented here is the first part of a research project designed to address questions related to the legal protection of Deaf people facing the Norwegian criminal justice system, either as victims of crimes, witnesses or defendants. In this paper, we present, analyze and discuss the results of interviews with representatives from the Norwegian criminal justice system and interviews with interpreters. In addition, we present a document analysis of court case decisions mentioning Deafness.

Research questions

The research question underlying the study presented here is formulated as follows: Given the extensive rights to interpreters for Deaf people in Norway and given the establishment of a public interpreting service in Norway, in what ways do these factors influence sign language interpreting in the context of criminal justice?


"Legal protection" is a concept with several connotations: In a very narrow sense, legal protection designates only that wrong sentences are not passed. Legal protection implies that the individual citizen is protected from encroachment or arbitrary actions from the government or other authorities (Echoff and Smith 1997). In a somewhat broader sense, legal protection also implies that a citizen involved with the criminal justice system is able to defend his or her rights, that he or she is not deprived of the opportunity to take part in one's own court case and have the possibility to submit an appeal and have their case re-examined (op.cit.). This principle is both an ideal and a practical guideline in several aspects of the criminal justice system in liberal democracies in Western Europe and the U.S. (Kjønstad og Syse 2005). However, this ideal will be of little help to citizens in vulnerable situations if it is not combined with detailed routines for guidance and support. For citizens facing communicative barriers, legal protection implies the right to be taken seriously when bringing charges, the right to be met in an understanding way, and the expectation that the local representatives of government authorities ensure that interpreters are called upon whenever there is a need. In general, disabled people are more vulnerable to violence and abuse than the general population (Conley et al. 1992; Olsvik 2005; Sandvin 2003; Sørheim 1998; Williams 1995). Some studies also suggest that cases of abuse involving Deaf children are reported to a lesser degree than the comparable number in the general population (Kvam 2001 and 2004).

To our knowledge, there are still no Deaf police officers, prosecutors, lawyers, judges or any other professionals usually employed within the criminal justice system in Norway. The question of legal protection for Deaf persons in the context of interpreting is, hence, a question regarding situations where Deaf persons face hearing professional actors.

Over the last thirty years, Deaf people in Norway have obtained legal rights to interpreting, which today, in principle, is fairly unrestricted. Public services (e.g. health, education, the criminal justice system) are obliged to cover the expenses for interpreting from their own budgets. Interpreting in other contexts is largely covered by government benefits.2 (Bergh 2004, Hjort 2008)

In order to meet the demand for a functional and effective interpreter service, public interpreter services were established by the Norwegian government in all the nineteen counties of Norway during the early and mid-1990s. Interpreters are employed as civil servants and share office space together with other interpreters. The head of office is normally an interpreter. The public interpreter service currently holds a monopoly over such services and has no competition from, for example, private interpreter services or freelance interpreters. The public interpreters make their own decisions about which interpreters should be assigned to the different cases. This means that when the police or representatives from the Norwegian criminal justice system need a sign language interpreter, they have only this one public service to call upon.

Parallel to the development of the national interpreter service, the length of the interpreter education in Norway has increased from one year in 1989, to two years in 1995, and finally, to a three year bachelor's university degree in 2006. The Norwegian sign language interpreters founded their own professional body at the end of the 1970s. Through this organisation, they have authored and revised their own code of ethics. Today, this code is similar to other codes of ethics for interpreters worldwide, and among its basic principles for professional conduct are interpreter-client confidentiality, neutrality, and an obligation to translate everything being uttered without holding anything back (Kermit 2007; Woll 1999)

Interestingly, the development sketched here displays many classic features that are recognized within sociology as hallmarks of the formation of a profession: A public mandate that allows the profession to monopolise its services, a publicly financed and organised service, an independent professional body deciding the professions' code of ethics, and finally, a specialised education that increases in length. (Eriksen & Molander 2008)

Norwegian Sign Language is currently de facto recognised as an official Norwegian language, even though the national assembly has still not passed the actual bill pronouncing this. The scientific discovery that signed languages are as full-fledged and natural as spoken ones is an insight that is probably central to the professional identity of Norwegian Sign Language interpreters. Even though their code of ethics emphasises the interpreters' independence and neutrality, the code is based on the notion of Deaf people as a lingual minority and not a group of disabled persons. The interpreters thus consider their service to be a lingual, rather than social one, but they still view it as a service that should promote social justice for Deaf people.

Like many comparable minority languages, Norwegian Sign Language has not developed a rich vocabulary in the lingual domain of criminal justice. A theoretical assumption about interpreting within the criminal justice system would thus suggest that interpreters face certain challenges in translating juridical terms in an equivalent manner, especially when translating from spoken Norwegian to Norwegian Sign language.

Traditionally, a monological model of communication has often been used when explaining translation and interpreting. This linear communication model has its origins in Shannon and Weaver (1949), who developed a mathematical theory about communication. The model regards the speaker (sender) as the active party in a dialogue. The speaker holds ownership to the utterances, and the audience is expected to decode the message.

The models developed in recent years are based on a different perspective on communication. These models regard communication as a dynamic process in which all participants are more active in the communication process (Vagle et al 1993). Also, the listener has an active role in the interpretation of what is said, and helps to carry the dialogue forward. With this understanding, the interpreters are also seen as active participants in the interpretation of what is happening. Contextual factors are important for the interpretation of utterances in the situation; therefore, it is not a one-to-one relationship between the utterance and the interpretation of it. Utterances understood in a context then become the starting point for the interpreter's work, not the conventional understanding of words, with the dictionary equivalents in the other language. Cecilia Wadensjö (1998) has studied interpreted dialogues between Russians and Swedes. Her perspectives on interpretation as part of a dynamic process, in which meaning and understanding is constantly negotiated between the parties, supports the dynamic models.

When a dynamic understanding of the communication process is applied, the perceived challenges facing interpreters become demanding. If the dialogue deals with a particular language and cultural context with special terms or a domain language, and the corresponding domain is not equally established in the second language or culture, it becomes particularly complicated to negotiate the precise meaning of an utterance through an interpreter.

To contend with this challenge in a communication situation in which not all the participants are using the same language, e.g. in the criminal justice system, one may have to organize the communication in a way that takes account of all parties. It may be necessary to change the practise and the embodiment of the procedure. However, getting an interpreter might be seen as the solution when many people lack a common language, and changing one's usual practises might seem unnecessary as soon as the interpreter is in place.

Ernst Thoutenhoofd (2005) has discussed the interpreter's role in inclusive educational settings. In his words, the interpreter

[…] is a crutch that serves to make inaccessible a deeper analysis of the conditions of social exclusion by making interpreting practice appear effective, exactly through the various professional activities (such as research into the effectiveness of processes and intervention types) that constitute that practice.(p 253)

If this is the case, it may also apply to the interpreters working within the criminal justice system.


The main methodological approach has been qualitative, open-ended personal interviews, with a total of 16 strategically recruited informants with different professional backgrounds and personal experiences related to the topic. Interviews have been carried out as semi-structured research interviews. For the most part, two researchers together interviewed the informants separately. All of the interviews were recorded, transcribed and then analyzed. The analysis of the material has been carried out on several topics with relevance for legal protection, in line with Silverman (2011) and Yin (1994).

This approach has been combined with a document analysis of 46 court case decisions from the last ten years, where deaf people have been involved either as a defendant, a witness or as the aggrieved party. These texts were imported into Nvivo (qualitative research analysis software) and then analyzed, guided by the same principles as the interviews (Creswell 1998). The selection of court cases has been carried out on the basis of a search on keywords such as deaf*, signing*, sign language*, and a number of similar words in a database covering most criminal court case decisions in the higher Norwegian courts (Court of Appeals).

The data consist of interviews with seven representatives of the Norwegian criminal justice system: police investigators, attorneys, district attorneys, defence lawyers and judges. All of these informants can be characterized as having a long professional career. All of them had personal experience from being professionally involved in cases where deaf people were defendants, witnesses or victims. Their experience cannot be described, however, as extensive. Though some of the informants had dealt with Deaf persons on two or three occasions, most of them had done so only once.

Further, nine sign language interpreters were interviewed. All of them were educated as sign language interpreters, and they were all employed by the national Norwegian interpreting service. All of the interpreters had personal experiences from interpreting in situations, such as, police interrogations, reporting to police, and interpretation in courts.


In the following paragraphs, the results from the different parts of the study are presented starting with the document analysis, then the results from the interviews with the representatives of the Norwegian criminal justice system, and finally, the results from the interviews with the interpreters.

To enhance readability, in what follows we refer to the representatives of the Norwegian criminal justice system as the professional actors. This term is not unproblematic, but we choose to apply it first and foremost to distinguish these informants from the interpreters. We do not wish to imply that the latter are not professional. Something that also adds to the complexity is that Norwegian interpreters normally refer to both the hearing and deaf parties as clients, thus emphasising that both parties are equal to the interpreter.

Criminal court cases

All the 46 criminal court cases we analysed included Deaf or hard of hearing persons, either as defendants, witnesses or the aggrieved party. Two important observations were made. First, compared to the number of hearing people involved in criminal court cases, the corresponding number of court cases mentioning deafness suggests that criminal court cases involving deaf and hard of hearing people are largely under-represented. This may indicate that deaf people have a higher barrier when it comes to contacting the police to report a case. It may also indicate that the police seek other ways to solve cases involving deaf people, such as using conflict resolution boards or just dismiss cases involving deaf people. However, the possibility that reference to deafness was disregarded simply because the judges saw deafness as irrelevant to the case cannot be ruled out.

Secondly, interpreters are mentioned as being present in the courtroom in only a few of the court cases analysed. None of the court case decisions reflect upon the interpreter's role or the communicative situation during the legal proceedings. Neither do these court case decisions discuss the possibility of misunderstandings or misinterpreted legal terms or concepts. This indicates that the professional actors in the courtroom did not look upon their involvement with Deaf people and interpreting as something involving possible communicative challenges, but rather as a technical adjustment to a somewhat different situation. This also points to the potential risk that the professional actors in court overlook the possibility that, for example, a deaf defendant has restricted access to what is going on in the courtroom, due to his or her hearing impairment. Information gained in the interviews with professional actors in the criminal court system (presented below) support these observations. For example, one informant told us that, in his opinion, deaf people were "just like people who can hear, but with one sense turned off". Similar views were offered by several of the other professional actors.

The representatives of the Norwegian criminal justice system

The professional actors all expressed that the legal safeguarding of Deaf people was an important issue calling for extra concern. Many of them pointed, among other things, to recent regulations in Norway requesting that all police interviews with so-called "vulnerable subjects" be audio or video recorded.

They all mentioned their experiences in working with sign language interpreters and the public sign language interpreting service and pointed out the importance of the professional assistance of interpreters.

Overall, the professional actors recognized the sign language interpreters as professionals; they expressed great confidence in the sign language interpreter's abilities. The interpreters were regarded as organized and as having perfected their jobs, among other things, because they would interrupt proceedings and ask for clarification if necessary. In the opinion of the professional actors, this proved that they were confident in their role as interpreters. In particular, the established practice in court and often in police interviews, in which two interpreters alternate in interpreting, was seen as a mark of the interpreters taking their work seriously.

Many of the informants compared the sign language interpreters to other interpreters in different spoken — normally minority — languages. They pointed out that working with interpreters is a frequent occurrence within the Norwegian criminal justice system. The police and the courts annually spend large sums of money to pay interpreters in a variety of languages. In the context of using spoken language interpreters, the professional actors expressed concern that working with these interpreters could involve risks and obstacles that could threaten legal safety. Such concerns were, however, ascribed to the cases where the professional actors had worked with sign language interpreters to a lesser degree. The latter were assessed to be of a much higher professional standard than the "other" interpreters. The professional actors' concerns for communicative challenges and possible barriers were thus no great issue of reflection in the cases involving Deaf persons. On the contrary, the hallmark of the sign language interpreters' professionalism was that the professional actors felt they could carry out their work and responsibilities without concerning themselves with the interpretation.

A professionalized interpreting service?

Five of the interpreters we interviewed had more than fifteen years of professional experience. In their general view, the legal protection of Deaf people in Norway had improved over the years of their professional careers. None of the nine informants discussed instances when they themselves had experienced something they would label as a miscarriage of criminal justice. In the interpreters' views, even though they could report on the risks and communicative barriers involved, none of them felt that they had participated in trials where a wrong sentence had been passed.

The claimed historic improvements were in general not ascribed to improved individual interpreting skills among Norwegian sign language interpreters. The informants did not suggest that they could translate better today than they could ten or fifteen years ago, but they did suggest that they had become "more professional" during these years. The reasons for the improvements, implied by our informants, were thus strongly connected to the manner in which the Norwegian interpreting service has been organised, as well as to improved professionalism and public status. In this sense, the interpreters confirmed the views of the professional actors.

The interpreters drew no sharp demarcation between the developments of the public Norwegian sign language interpreter service and the professionalization of the collegium of sign language interpreters in Norway. Those interpreters with the longest experience had started working as freelancers, and had been among the first to obtain fixed positions as interpreters when public interpreting services were established. All of the informants—even those with shorter work experience—would very much describe themselves as partakers in the process of setting up a national public sign language interpreting service.

On an organisational level, there are certain relevant aspects of the establishing of the interpreter service that pertain to the question of Deaf persons' legal protection in the context of criminal justice:

First, the informants' professional identity was that of civil servants who belong to an independent public agency answerable to a public mandate. Even though all the informants saw interpreting within the criminal justice system as a very important task, this kind of interpreting was but one among other equally important tasks, for example, interpreting in a medical or educational context.

Secondly, the informants all took for granted that the criminal justice system could turn only to the public service whenever there was need for sign language interpreting. The aforementioned system where two interpreters cooperate on an assignment—something that was recognised as a hallmark of professionalism by the professional actors—was explained in a slightly different way by the interpreters. In their words, the police or the courts should pay for a minimum of two selected interpreters assigned to tasks within the criminal justice system. As a rule, the interpreter services always demanded that a minimum of two interpreters were deployed on these assignments. Over the years, Norwegian interpreters (as well as interpreters in many other countries) have developed this "working together in a pair" approach; the one who is not doing the actual interpreting is still monitoring his or her colleague and giving support and correction whenever needed. Among our informants this was generally regarded as a good way of securing a higher quality outcome.

When representatives from the criminal justice system call in a request for interpreters, they are asked specific questions about the nature of the assignment, and if necessary, they are asked to provide written material for the interpreters' preparations. Our informants expressed trust in the interpreting service's ability to handle the processes of selecting interpreters for these assignments in a manner that would ensure the highest possible outcomes through putting "the right interpreters in the right place." Though practical concerns (like situations occurring where several interpreters are on sick leave or not present for other reasons) sometimes called for less than optimal selections, according to our informants, in general, they described a working community where individual strengths and capabilities were recognised and put to work. In this manner, interpreters with experience interpreting within the criminal justice system would be strategically picked for new assignments within this domain. At the same time, newcomers could be paired with an experienced colleague the first time he or she worked on a criminal case.

With the exception of the interpreters with the longest professional career, our informants described how they gained their first experiences interpreting for the police or in courts in this manner. Moreover, the informants described themselves as members of informal teams specialising in these types of interpreting at the interpreter services. Beside of their interpreter education, none of the informants had any additional formal education that could be said to give them extra qualifications for interpreting within the criminal justice system. Their competence was the result of gained experience, and as such, the informants described how their experience had grown. In this context, several of the informants also commented on how they viewed the collegium at the interpreting service as a community where they could discuss their work with peers, and they saw these discussions as important both to their individual professional development and to the development of the collegium as a whole.

The interpreters' experience working within the system of criminal law

Given the way the interpreters described their preparations and behaviour in courts and at the police stations, one could—to a certain degree—say that the interpreters cooperate with the other professional actors. However, when pressing the question, all the informants added that cooperation was established only to the extent that they themselves initiated it. Being invited, for example, to preparatory talks or receiving documentation prior to the proceedings by a judge, a counsel for the defence, a prosecutor or other participants in court was something the interpreters had never experienced. It was always the interpreters themselves or the service that took the initiative. In the interpreters' experience, their demands and initiations of cooperation were, however, seldom refused. The informants all told stories of being met with respect and interest, and there are few exceptions to this pattern.

These factors seemed to influence the way interpreters chose to work when interpreting for the police and in the courts; they all stated that they were unafraid to interrupt proceedings when there was need for clarification, when something had to be repeated, or when something happened that hampered the interpreter's ability to work effectively. They expressed taking pride in being professional, observing the code of ethics for interpreters and, overall, they felt confident in their role.

Pressing these issues, a few of our informants admitted that they themselves did not always understand everything spoken in Norwegian, especially when the professional actors would argue among themselves over issues like the formal understanding of a certain paragraph, using a lot of juridical terms. Some also added that they could not stop every time they felt unsure that they understood correctly: "That would interrupt the legal proceedings too much." However, they claimed that they were able to distinguish between important and less important content, so that they would make sure that only the latter could be given more rough translations.

The informants confirmed that a sign language interpreter can have a challenging job translating juridical terms in an equivalent manner from spoken Norwegian to Norwegian Sign Language, and explications might be necessary to preserve the meaning. Our informants referred frequently to these challenges. However, they were not very eager to explain how they actually did translate juridical language, but implied that they sometimes had to borrow the Norwegian term and either fingerspell it or just render it in signed Norwegian, thus relying on the Deaf person's bilingual abilities and knowledge of spoken Norwegian.

All the interpreters described how Deaf persons they had encountered at the police office or in the courtrooms were not always people with a firm lingual grip on domains that others (hearing or Deaf) might take for granted. At this point, all the informants took great care not to denigrate the Deaf persons they had served, but they still pointed out that some of these persons struggled, not only with spoken Norwegian as their second language, but also with Norwegian Sign Language. One of the informants described a client as "a man of few words," indicating something other than the usual meaning of this idiom; he was not a quiet man, but the interpreter did not trust that he understood all her signing. All the informants told similar stories, and many of them stated that they felt they sometimes had to simplify their translations to make them understandable to some of their Deaf clients. The interpreters were not very clear on whether or not they always told the other professional actors that this was in fact done.

This suggests that there might be gaps in the communication that interpreters cannot fill, or worse, the interpreters might create the impression that the cultural and social distances between the hearing and the Deaf participants are smaller than they actually are. When asked about this, the interpreters made remarks like, "there are so many things that the hearing people should have known, both about deaf people in general, and about the participating deaf in particular. But am I the one to tell them?" The informants stated that they were loath to step beyond what they considered to be the boundaries of the professional-client relationship defined by their codes of ethics. Even though they all recognized a responsibility to inform their clients about their role and modus operandi, informing one client about another client was not something they would do without serious consideration. Some of the informants suggested a distinction between "general knowledge about D/deaf people" and the particular impression of one D/deaf client they would form during an assignment. They had sometimes provided the other professional actors with some "general information," but with care, because they had experienced that such information often was not fully understood, or that the professional actor would simply take for granted that everything the interpreter said was directly applicable to the particular Deaf client they were facing.

The interpreters expressed worries. The first being that the professional actors systematically underestimated the challenges involved in the translation process, and hence, did little to adjust their usual manner of working. Secondly, they shared concern that the professional actors lacked the necessary knowledge required to understand what it might mean to be Deaf and signing. "The hearing people think sign language is exactly like spoken Norwegian, only with signs instead of sounds," one informant exclaimed. Here, all the informants addressed the discrepancy between what they often would think they understood about their Deaf clients, and what they would think that the other professional actors understood. At the same time, it would seem that the interpreters felt that it was difficult to engage actively in order to reduce the believed gap between the clients.


The results of the study suggest two slightly contradictory notions. On one hand, a well-organized and professionalized interpreting service that operates on the firm basis of Deaf persons' rights to an interpreter seems to contribute to the legal protection of Deaf people facing the criminal justice system in Norway. On the other hand, the results to some degree confirm the theoretical ideas of Ernst Thoutenhoofd mentioned above. These are, namely, that a professionalized sign language interpreting service in itself cannot be regarded as the alleviation of communicative barriers for Deaf persons, but might itself present a barrier that disables Deaf persons.

The institutionalisation of rights to sign language interpreters is the pretext for establishing a public national interpreting service in Norway. Our results support the notion that the process of professionalization among sign language interpreters in Norway has profited from the public recognition of Deaf people's right to interpreting. This bears some significant aspects of meaning in the context of interpreting within the criminal justice system and the legal protection of Deaf people. First, the interpreters can operate as representatives of an independent public agency with mandates and responsibilities of their own. Even though the criminal justice system is charged for the interpreting services they require, there is little risk that the interpreters will bend to the will of the professional actors in any given situation, simply because the interpreters see themselves as primarily employed by the criminal justice system. This is linked to the second point: the interpreting service seems to capitalise on its national monopoly on sign language interpreting services. Even though the criminal justice system has to pay for interpreter service, they have limited possibilities to influence what kind of service they will get. Clear examples showing that the interpreter service utilises its monopoly are (1) the standard use of a minimum of two interpreters on these assignments, and (2) the service will request available documentation for preparation.

In addition to these aspects, the criminal justice system probably benefits from some other factors linked to the professionalization of the interpreters in Norway. For example, the public interpreting service secures a certain level of standards, and a professional assessment of the capabilities of those interpreters assigned to the police or the courts. The length of the education for interpreters has increased to a three-year bachelor's degree over the last twenty years. As professionals, the interpreters can draw on the support of other members of their collegium, and they can discuss professional matters in an academic setting through contact with the educational institutions where interpreting studies are offered. Finally, as members of informal teams with a certain responsibility for interpreting within the criminal justice system, new "members" can benefit from the experience of interpreters with a longer working record. These are all aspects of general significance, but they point out the not very original, but still important, point that the criminal justice system benefits from a system designed to serve Deaf people with whatever needs they may have, great or small. Hence, the general professionalism of sign language interpreters probably contributes to the enhancement of the quality of the interpreting service within the criminal justice system.

However, when the new and seemingly self-confident profession of interpreters has been established, this might lead to new questions and challenges. Deaf people facing the criminal justice system now meet another professional actor — the interpreter — with what would seem to be a well-defined professional role and standardized codes of practice that are more or less taken for granted.

It appears that issues related to the translation of the legal concepts and terminology — in the opinion of the professional actors — are understood as an easy operation, rather than the complicated question of how meaning is negotiated with the interpreters present. There is a risk that the representatives of the criminal justice system fail to reflect on issues concerning the translation, simply because one takes for granted that the professional interpreters take care of this. The presence of the interpreters may camouflage the communicative barriers to the professional actors in court and to the police, for example, when the interpreters make interrogations and court hearings run smoothly and with few breaks. None of the professional actors we interviewed questioned how well deaf Norwegians, who have Norwegian Sign Language as their first language and Norwegian as a second language, actually master Norwegian spoken or written language. It may seem that it is taken for granted that deaf Norwegians master Norwegian.

The confidence the professional actors have in the sign language interpreters is questionable in two intertwined ways. First, the trust placed in the sign language interpreters may prevent the professional actors from reflecting upon both the challenges facing the interpreter, as well as the challenges facing the Deaf persons. Secondly, the trust in the interpreters as professionals also contains the professional actors' trust that they themselves do not have to alter the usual manner in which they work because the interpreter handles — or even nullifies — the anomalistic situation of facing a Deaf client.

In theory, the professional responsibility of a judge, prosecutor, defence counsel or a police officer is not altered by the presence of an interpreter. Their authority to exert their professional powers may be altered, however. The way interpreters exert their professional role and power has an impact on the situation they take part in. A perhaps uncomfortable insight for the professional actors is that they are clients of the interpreter, in the same way they look upon Deaf persons as their clients. As professionals, the interpreters depend on their clients' trust. To a certain degree, our results indicate that the interpreters might be said to convey the tacit message to all their clients (both the professional actors as well as the deaf clients) that as long as they comply with the interpreters' demands, they may in fact carry on as usual without worry. To the professional actors, such a message might cloud the alterations in professional authority occurring when the interpreters enter the situation.

The interpreters identify the aspects related both to the professional actors' knowledge (or lack of such) about the interpreters' role, as well as about Deaf people. They are confident in dealing with the former. This is a defined element of their roles as professionals because explaining their role is a prerequisite for gaining necessary trust. The latter — explaining issues related to what it might mean to be Deaf — is, however, defined as mostly beyond the interpreters' professional responsibilities.

This demarcation is not unfounded. For example, the interpreters' code of ethics states rather clearly that the interpreter should not undertake professional tasks other than those related to the actual interpreting. There are highly justifiable arguments that imply this is a sound principle. If the interpreters, for example, overstep their role as "only" neutral interpreters and start advocating their own views and opinion, they might as well confuse matters instead of improving them. The professional reluctance to disclose a client to another party also emphasises that to interpreters, both parties are equal even though they may have very different roles. Having said this, the interpreters have decided their own code of ethics and, thus, the responsibility for developing their own profession. It might be understandable that the individual interpreter finds it difficult to intervene in order to fill in the professional actors on what Deafness might mean, but that those not exclude the possibility that the profession as a community takes action to promote change.

In the current situation, bringing in interpreters holds no guarantee that the police or the court and their deaf clients can bridge the linguistic and cultural barriers that may exist. On the contrary, keeping with their practice, the interpreters might be contributing to the continued under-communication of the barriers deaf people might face, even with interpreters present. Communicative practices in the courtrooms may, thus, be preserved the way they are. A seemingly well-functioning interpreting service makes the interpreters' efforts and presence more or less invisible to the professional actors within the criminal justice system. The professionalised interpreting service might thus contribute to sustain a certain form of communicative practice that has important weaknesses. The professional actors, on their hand, might get the understanding that they may carry on as usual, and the interpreters will stop them and ask again, if anything is difficult to understand or other problems should occur.

This is not something the professional actors might detect as problematic. The interpreters, on the other hand, recognize that this might be highly problematic for the Deaf clients because they are the ones left with the task of bridging the linguistic and cultural gaps.

To add to the complexity, it is noteworthy that the results indicate that the translation of juridical terms might force Deaf clients to mobilize whatever bilingual and bicultural capacity they possess in order to take part in the negotiations. It is reasonable to suggest that some Deaf people would face insurmountable barriers here. First, some of the interpreters admit that they themselves do not always understand everything said, and that they do not always ask for clarifications. Secondly, the interpreters also state that some of the deaf people who come into contact with the criminal justice system have this type of bilingual and bicultural competence only to a small extent.

Although the interpreters we interviewed would state that they could make recommendations to the professional actors in order to improve communication, they would emphasize that their involvement was limited to only making suggestions. When the communication, then, is less than optimal, the interpreters, to a certain extent, could be said to take the professional responsibility of defining what is "adequate" or sufficiently functional. When asked about the professional responsibility that such choices involve, the interpreters defended themselves by pointing out what the professional actors "should have known." It is however questionable whether such views are fully justifiable.


If deaf people were to be fully recognized by the police and in the courts, that would probably imply not only good cooperation with the interpreters, but a more fundamental change in practice. The latter is, however, not a point of view the interpreters strongly advocate or try to promote as individuals, or as a profession.

By not informing the professional actors about the challenges they are facing, the interpreters undertake some of the responsibility that the other professional actors normally would have had. However, this is done in a surreptitious way, and both the hearing and the Deaf clients might be unaware of how the interpreters exert their professional powers. The professional actors—the hearing clients—are, however, not very much at risk. As long as no grave incidences of miscarriage of justice are detected, the professional actor's practices are not likely to be questioned. Deaf persons, even though they are not given a wrong sentence, might have their rights to legal protection violated if they are denied the possibility of being participants in the full sense in matters that concern them.

Could this mean that deaf people face the interpreter not only as an aid to alleviate barriers, but also as a barrier in its own right? When interpreting is seen not as a simple conveying of utterances, but as a professional practice, this issue could clearly be argued.

The study presented here was funded by Fritz Moen’s Research Fund.


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  1. Even though the distinction is far from clear, we follow the custom of differentiating between the medical condition of being deaf (which is written with a lowercase "d") and being a member of a signing community (in which case Deaf is written with a capital "D") (See for example Woodward, 1972; Markowicz & Woodward, 1978; Padden & Humphries, 1988). For an analysis of the different notions of D/deafness, see Kermit 2009.

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  2. It is important to remark that these legal rights are mostly found in the same paragraphs that establish rights for technical aids for disabled people in general, so these rights cannot be seen as a recognition of Deaf people as a lingual minority in Norway.

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